I’m a zombie guy, always have been. Vampires are alright, werewolves eh… But zombies? Yes please! I know it’s so freakin cool to like zombies these days that it’s almost cool NOT to like them anymore… Popular culture just works that way. Popularity is like a zombie apocalypse. It’s manageable when there’s only a few of them, but as soon as you attract the attention of the horde, it’s all over. Ever since I saw George Romero‘s Dawn of the Dead years and years ago I knew that these shuffling, mindless, flesh-ripping monsters were really just a symbol of our modern society. In the good old days social commentary and satire went hand-in-hand with exploding heads and fists full of entrails.
Zombies have changed since 9/11. Now it’s all about social anxiety.
It used to be a voodoo curse or a weird green comet that reanimated dead flesh, sending it slowly in the direction of the all-nourishing brains. Now it’s all about the end of times. It’s a secret biological weapon or a mutated infection that sends our feverish husbands, wives, or kids into mysterious comas that end tragically with them gnawing on our ribcage. Now days it’s all about the system breaking down, the safety of our everyday lives being dowsed in gasoline and set on fire… And why not? We don’t need zombies to see this kind of human atrocity every day. Remember this is the same human nature that causes neighbors to stab each other over food or water during hurricanes and turns policemen into shoot-first-ask-questions-later militias…
That’s the true fear we see reflected in the images of the Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, and now, World War Z. It’s not the inevitable zombie bite that scares the crap out of me, but the way that people react to it. How fear can twist the mind into something unrecognizable. It’s the stripping-away of our morals, our rights, our comfortable sense of home and safety. The de-evolution of mankind apparently happens in the blink of an eye.
We lose our shit quick. We are a world already torn apart by unspeakable violence, disease, political unrest, and worst of all… Apathy.
This is the stage set in World War Z. A fast-paced, lean, and severely disturbing experiment in big-budget zombie movie making. No one who has read Max Brooks‘ novel seems to be pleased with the movie as far as I know… Luckily for me I haven’t read it yet. I’m still pissed at him for stealing my idea for the Zombie Survival Guide… But that was years ago. My point is this: apparently if you want to enjoy this movie you can’t be a WWZ novel fan-boy.
But I got into this movie, big time. It sucked me in from the opening credits, a montage of news footage and doomsday talk all set to a creepy, frenetic soundtrack by rock gods Muse. I also went to see it early on in the day, before my bullshit meter was filled up. It’s really the best time to see a scary movie. Most zombie movies are inherently campy, even the Walking Dead has a thick slab of cheese on top. It can’t be helped. It’s partly the gore, the make-up, the shufflin’ hordes I mentioned earlier.
World War Z side-steps the cliche by taking a few pages from Danny Boyle‘s low-budget masterpiece 28 Days Later… Which is in my opinion the scariest damn zombie flick ever made. With World War Z it’s almost as if Brad Pitt (and the studio) said, “Ok this is a great book, but let’s just use the name…” then they proceeded to make a Hollywood prequel to the Danny Boyle movie. Plagued by rewrites, bad press, and massive reshoots including an entirely new ending, this movie was destined to fail.
Fortunately the rewrites and the reshoots were a good call. Despite it’s flaws, World War Z is a solid piece of action film making. I was on the edge of my seat from the first few scenes til the credits came up at the end… And Holy Shit did I mention the zombies are scary? I mean mercilessly-vicious kind of scary? Like a flowing river of running, grabbing, chomping pack animals? These aren’t your Romero zombies baby, these suckers are more akin to wild animals infected with rabies and meth. They head-butt through glass to bite you, then on to the next person. They’re a spreading disease, not a legion of the undead.
Right away we’re introduced to Gerry Lane (Pitt), an ex-UN hot shot who wrote a controversial paper that got him an early retirement at home with the family. His comfortable little home life provides the emotional core to the movie, and co-star Mireille Enos provides a solid supporting role… Even if her part was cut down significantly. The star of AMC’s the Killing, Enos is underutilized here… (at least she isn’t Matthew Fox, who had his entire role trimmed down to two scenes and one line). The Lanes are going on a trip to Philadelphia, and that’s where they find themselves in the middle of a zombie outbreak.
The scene is perfect. Quick cuts and some shaky-cam provide a sense of forboding as the family is stuck in a traffic jam that seems to stretch on forever. Soon the station-wagon is clipped by a passing motorcycle cop, and Gerry gets out to retrieve his side mirror. The buildings seem to loom over them in the downtown traffic. It’s claustrophobic, confusing, and brilliantly shot. When an explosion further up the street a few miles raises the panic meter, another motorcycle cop drives up and ushers Gerry back into his car. He shrugs his shoulders and does just that, before one of those physically-impossible speeding vehicle effects sends the cop sailing through the air as a garbage truck goes crashing through the lane next to them, plowing through parked cars like a hot knife through zombie. Soon Gerry, sensing he needs to get the hell out of there, falls in behind the truck, like Moses and the Red Sea of Philly traffic. Before they can get clear the car is t-boned by another escaping vehicle and the family is sent reeling. As Gerry pulls his wife and kids out of the Volvo he hears a noise… Behind the screams… Some kind of terrifying animal snarl. More quick-edits of people running and panicked faces are spliced with frightening images of zombie faces. It’s a good effect. You see them in the crowd, like Gerry, and then the music comes up… And the snarls are getting closer.
In this movie there are Zombies leaping from tall buildings, crashing down with bone-crushing force, only to jump up and pounce on the nearest victim… All to spread the infection. It takes anywhere from 10 seconds to 10 minutes for people to “turn” and the lingering “how the hell does something that works that fast get through an airplane ride to disburse across the globe?” question will bug you through the whole thing. Suspend your disbelief. It’s worth it. This is one of the most suspenseful action/horror movies that has been pumped out of the Hollywood machine… And while it doesn’t do justice to the political satire and social commentary of the novel, it works none the less.
In the end, World War Z is the “scariest” zombie flick I’ve seen in years. The CGI is perfect, the story is just enough to get us from one terrific disaster scene to the next, and even though it ballooned over budget and out of control, I’m glad it made some serious money. This one deserves a sequel!