The thing about zombie stories and movies is they’re not about the zombies, they’re about people, what they do in certain situations and what we would do as a species when faced with a worldwide outbreak. I love Max Brook’s World War Z, one of my all-time favourite books; it doesn’t hold back or pull any punches, taking an almost academic look at how different cultures have dealt with situations in the past and taking into account politics, religion and the human condition, and extrapolated an event which feels uncomfortably real, told from the points of view of multiple survivors in different situations all around the world, from villages to Hollywood penthouses, soldiers to mothers, and therein lies its greatest strength.
While many fans of the book hoped for a documentary style film with multiple threads, the trailer indicated a Hollywood blockbuster about Brad Pitt and his family with “I promise I’ll come back for you” clichés akin to the Spielberg/Cruise War of the Worlds or the abomination which was I Am Legend, classic books of loss and torment converted to generic blockbusters which cash in on the reputation of the sources while preserving only their names, and while this film is enjoyable, if predictable and formulaic, it is World War Z in title only.
As you would expect from a Hollywood blockbuster the film has plentiful action and suspense, a high body count and a surprisingly low amount of sentimentality, but unfortunately what is also absent is most of the book. There are some small passing references, but that’s all. While the book made the reader feel, giving rich and intimate detail on how the world deals with the outbreak, this is an action movie, and one solely focused on one hero saving the day.
Pitt plays former UN investigator Gerry Lane, experienced in warzones and emergency situations, while his wife’s entire backstory is that she is British. The subplot of Pitt‘s family is mercifully minimal, a motivation for his involvement rather than a narrative thread, and no investment is made to make them endearing or interesting. While the movie opens with a family breakfast, within minutes mass panic breaks out, but Lane’s background saves pointless conversations when the CGI hits the fan, and no exposition is wasted talking the audience through the disaster. When a gun is found, it’s slung over a shoulder; when it is fired, there is no angst over it. The presence of competent characters improves the quality and pace of the movie greatly.
The fast 28 Days Later style infected lack the unrelenting horror of the foot dragging zombies of Romero, but they suit the tone of the film. The effects are as good as would be expected of a production of this scope, but any large groups of zombies will invariably look artificial, and while the fast cutting and shaky camera give a sense of chaos it also makes it easy to lose track of the action, but throughout the appearance of the individual carriers is convincingly unpleasant. Those who prefer traditional shufflers will be pleased by the (substantially reshot) final act, where the survivors are even presented with the classic choice of anti-zombie weapons: baseball bat, axe, crowbar, or gun?
While the story is of one man, it is apparent that behind the scenes the voices were legion, pulling in different directions, resulting in production difficulties and missed opportunities. The most impressive and terrifying scene, where a pyramid of zombies scale the walls of the last stronghold in Israel is spoiled on two counts; first, in that Lane is the only person in the city to spot anything is wrong even though helicopters patrol beyond the perimeter, and second, that the scene was fully revealed in the trailer. What should have been a moment of calm within terrifyingly shattered to rival the destruction of the White House in Independence Day or the windows of Nakatomi Plaza blowing out in Die Hard is deflated by a marketing campaign that undermines the very film it hopes to promote.
Although Lane spends his time jettting around the world, very little is shown of other countries beyond his immediate destinations. The suggestion of North Korea’s policy is interesting, but the lack of global perspective makes the film feel smaller than the source material, hindered by the decision that this should be a star vehicle for Pitt. He does an adequate job but there is no real substance to Lane, his placement as first on the UN’s speed too convenient. The supporting actors make the best of minimal roles, particularly Daniella Kertesz’s Israeli soldier Segan, though other familiar faces are Peter Capaldi, Matthew Fox, David Morse, and John Gordon Sinclair, some with only a line or two, but each making the best of their characters and raising the standard of the movie.
One detail thankfully transferred from the book is the concept of ‘the Tenth Man,” the reason Israel was so prepared for the outbreak, the safeguard the nation has set up as a result of having suffered atrocities in the past where if nine people read the same information and come to the same conclusion, it is the job of the tenth to assume that whatever information, however unbelievable, is credible and dig until they find the truth or prove it impossible beyond all doubt. Brooks conceived the reaction of different counties based on past events and cultural precedent, but ideas such as the South African plan were lost in translation.
The film also has no concern with how the general population are affected, faceless billions only represented as statistics. The fate of these people has always been the true horror of zombie stories and the novel World War Z is a collection of stories and events from different people, reflecting the vast and diverse population of the world and the many readers who have shared that, but while the film will invariably reach a wider audience, it is a much narrower and less representative view of events.
World War Z is now on general release in 2D and 3D