When George Romero was preparing to make his 1985 zombie classic Day of Dead, he had planned an epic world spanning film that would show the zombie plague’s eventual global reach. The studio told him he could get the funding to do that based on the popularity of his previous two films, Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, but he would have to cut some of the gore in order to garner an R rating as opposed to his usual ducking of the rating system. He refused to compromise, and instead, we got a smaller, insulated film that takes place within a bunker and feature buckets and buckets of stomach churning gore.
World War Z made the opposite decision… and my feelings about that decision is mixed.
I understand why that decision was made… I get it… now that the zombie genre is beyond mainstream and readily accepted as a viable genre thanks to more quality films over the years and one particular super popular television series based on an extremely popular comic series… The Walking something or other… the time was ripe for a movie that could bring in as many viewers as possible, and that is where the PG-13 rating has become the “net” that can be deployed to capture as many people as they can cram into a theater. But does it work with horror? And can it work with something as visceral as a zombie story is meant to be?
I can only answer that question as The Simpson’s Reverend Lovejoy might… “Short answer, Yes with an if. Long answer, No with a but.”
Yes… if you weren’t expecting a hardcore zombie horror film. It works because the movie was actually a great deal of fun and managed to keep a fairly decent pace while giving us enough action to make it feel right at home as a summer popcorn flick.
The story is simple enough… an outbreak of what appears to be rabies is quickly engulfing various regions of the world, and thanks to the globalization of air travel, it spreads very quickly. Brad Pitt’s character, Gerry Lane (one of the few similarities to the original source material, more on that later), is a former UN investigator who is called back into duty to investigate the origins of the outbreak along with the world’s premiere virologist. He declines, but the UN won’t accept no for an answer and basically tells him that they won’t offer his family protection unless he plays ball… so it’s off to South Korea for Mr. Lane.
The scenes of Pitt and his family escaping the outbreak in Philadelphia are fantastic and grand in their scope. That is one thing this movie gets right… when it wants to show us the scale of the epidemic, it deftly pulls back on any scene in order to show us the magnitude of the threat. Unfortunately, it’s this specific device that also detracts from the tension, pulling us out of the immediate danger on the ground and elevating the viewer to what ends up feeling like a very safe place, away from the personal and into the more sterile atmosphere of CGI and visual effects.
So as an action film and a fun summer blockbuster for the whole family to enjoy, World War Z is a success, and I can’t begrudge it that. Now we get to the point where I become a zombie horror geek and point out what annoyed the hell out of me… and the “no, with a but” aspect of this review.
I have difficulty with a zombie movie that is essentially bloodless. I am not a fan of torture porn, I don’t need excessive gore in order to enjoy a horror or zombie movie, but… seeing an infected person run someone down, bite their arm, then run away as the victim suddenly begins convulsing on the ground just to rise up within a few seconds ready to rage seemed a bit off to me. Add to that a scene where someone gets their hand lopped off, you might expect a drop of blood… but no… not one drop. It’s not a deal breaker in terms of the action or quality of the movie, but it did pull me out of any sense of dread onscreen.
Then there is the little fact that as a fan of the original source material, I was more than a little disappointed that not one single element from the novel made it’s way to the screen. Other than the name of Gerry Lane and the title, there was nothing from the book… and frankly, there were more than a handful of very cinematic moments from the book that could have made for some fine zombie action (Battle of Yonkers?), and a few scenes with fantastic character and familial tensions that would have made for some great fun. But alas… even Max Brooks has distanced himself from this final product.
In the end, I must admit I enjoyed the film. It was fun… it was action packed with a number of awesome set pieces… it had moments that had me excited and eager to see where they would take the story next. Do I have my little nit-picking complaints… certainly… but I anticipated going into this movie with a slight chip on my shoulder from the get go, and I realize that I am being overly critical of what amounts to a simple action flick.
I had the distinct pleasure of watching the movie with Jason and Karen from The Walking Dead’Cast and then immediately recording an episode of the podcast where we discuss this film and the third season of Game of Thrones (I will post a link once the podcast is released). I come off as the curmudgeonly contrarian of the group… but I liked it far more than I was insinuating both then and now.
World War Z just happens to sit right in the middle of what I both love and hate… zombies and sanitized horror for a wider audience. It’s inevitable that I may make comparisons with other movies in the zombie genre and think about what has worked in the past and what fell flat… contrary to my opening with a story of Romero, I am not a huge Romero fan. I often felt like he would sacrifice good storytelling in favor of gore… and my favorite zombie movie of all time is the 2004 Zack Snyder remake of Dawn of the Dead, which may be the largest budgeted zombie film ever previous to World War Z (totally not sure about that, pulling that “fact” out of my ass). There is one scene from that film that has always been my perfect zombie moment… as Sarah Polley’s character, Ana, is racing from her home, her newly zombified husband chasing her car, there is a woman standing on her lawn in her robe holding a coffee cup, just watching the mayhem and chaos unfold… the husband sees her and decides against chasing the car and goes for something a little more readily available… she lets out a scream and that’s all we end up seeing of both the husband and the berobed lady… but it did more to set the tone of total societal breakdown than any massive set piece ever could.
So take your arguments over slow vs. fast zombies… take your arguments over whether or not someone who is just infected vs. undead… take your discussions of big-budget vs. low-budget… we can now effectively render each of those moot, because it doesn’t really matter anymore. Zombies are proving themselves to be (undead) cash cows, and any argument to the contrary is now academic… for better, or for worse… World War Z is a massive success, despite any grumblings from geeky masses.
Don’t bite me bro,
Cornelius J. Blahg