Film review: World War Z (SPOILER ALERTS!!!)

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Zombie stories offer a unique lens compared to other horror genres because of the perspectives they permit and assume regarding power and revolution. I use Pride & Prejudice & Zombies to teach my students about feminism and New Historicism. Zombies are optimally qualified to explore a post-institutional society because a zombie apocalypse is, if not benign, then un-focused. It’s de-politicized.  The only dichotomy is eaters vs. eaten. And zombies are the only horror genre that can work in this way.

Take vampires, for instance. Vampires are conscious. They have an agenda. Often they can pass as regular people. They’re frequently immortal, or at the very least superhuman. When you think of vampires, do you imagine them working the second shift at a food processing plant? Do you picture them attending monster truck rallies?  Ever come across a vampire named Bubba? (I don’t watch True Blood, but I know it’s in the South, so I’m open to the possibility of a Bubba vampire). Or do you generally imagine them as sophisticated, educated, well-to-do creatures? My association has always been the latter. Vampires don’t overthrow power structures. Vampires are power structures, whether hidden in shadow or having infiltrated the highest levels of human bureaucracies.

Zombies are apolitical. The only demographic they care about is meat. When you showcase a world that’s been overrun by zombies, it’s one of the only opportunities in mass media to safely explore the idea of a world without governments, banks, industry, finance, etc. There’s no partisan divide to bicker over. Just meat.

The film version of World War Z has been eagerly anticipated by Undeadheads since the book, an oral history of a zombie apocalypse, came out in 2006.

Full disclosure: I am a zombie freak. Have been since I first saw George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead. People fixate on zombies for lots of reasons. I already told you part of mine: I’m interested in how the artist and the audience imagine/react to a world without institutions, because increasingly I fear such a world is unlikely.

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SPOILER ALERT: WWZ opens with Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt, looking like Chris Hemsworth’s picture of Dorian Gray) and his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) enjoying a morning of familial bliss with their two daughters, Rachel (Abigail Hargrove) and Constance (Sterling Jerins) (Perhaps the most disturbing part of WWZ is the thought of someone as young as Constance being saddled with the name ‘Constance.’). As the family drives into Philadelphia, there are hints of disturbance—police rushing in all directions, people screaming, people running down the street, away from their cars. Soon enough, the zombies arrive, the Lanes narrowly escape, and the movie is on its way.

Unfortunately, Gerry’s family soon becomes utterly superfluous, despite having started with such promise…well, the kids had promise, anyway. Rachel’s asthma is introduced when she’s running from zombies. Asthmatic kid fleeing the undead? Look in your hands, WWZ. See that red beating thing? That’s my heart. It’s yours.
Constance is repeatedly held up as the innocence amidst the madness: she’s uber-attached to her teddy bear, to the point that Gerry stops to pick it up when he’s being chased by zombies; when the family’s under attack in the car, she’s crying for her blanket; she defiantly refutes Gerry calling her “baby” as he’s preparing to leave the family to lead the investigation into where the zombies originated.
In Newark, the Lanes find brief refuge with a Spanish-speaking couple and their bilingual son, Tomas, who loses his parents to the undead but escapes to safety with the Lanes.

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Karin, who looks like Cintia Dicker’s mom, is essentially a beard in WWZ.  After a semi-promising opening half-hour, she ceases to be a three-dimensional character and, other than one scene where she makes an unfortunate phone call, serves no purpose over the last 90 minutes besides looking frustratedly at her sporadically-in-service cell phone. Even when something of ENORMOUS SIGNIFICANCE happens—say, bureaucratic red tape forcing her & the kids off maybe-the-only-safe-place-left-in-the-world-UN-naval-base-in-the-middle-of-the-Atlantic-instead-shipping-them-off-to-some-base-in-Nova-freakin’-Scotia-that-for-all-anyone-knows-is-teeming-with-superzombies—we don’t see a single glimpse of this woman’s range or personality. The only reason she appears be in this movie is so Brad Pitt has someone to come back to at the end.  She’s like the Winston Zedmore of WWZ.

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Look at all the potential storylines:

Rachel has a medical issue that’s exacerbated by anxiety or exertion.  Hmm. Suspenseful. Sounds like something a zombie film could explore.
Constance is young enough to be a kid but old enough to begin resenting it.  Hmm. Tension between the known and unknown worlds. Sounds like something a zombie film could explore.
Tomas has been orphaned, both in the macro and micro sense of the word.  Hmm. An even more dramatic tension between known and unknown worlds. Sounds like something a zombie film could explore.

Will the asthmatic fall victim to her illness?
Will the baby of the family survive in this new world, or have her development accelerated, or stopped altogether?
Will the orphan dive headlong into his new “family,” compensating for his sudden loss? Or will he hesitate, afraid that attaching himself to these new people would betray the memory of the only family he’s known? SOUNDS LIKE SOMETHING A ZOMBIE FILM COULD EXPLORE!

Nope.
Doesn’t happen. Because WE NEVER SEE THEM AGAIN!!!!!!!

Lest you get the wrong impression: I enjoyed this movie. The zombies were like zombies on meth & steroids. Second-best zombies I’ve ever seen, possibly (the remake of Day Of The Dead had sick zombies, too). I jumped in my seat, more than once.  Most of the Brad Pitt scenes (meaning, the last 3/4ths of the movie) were awesome.  The way the film imagines the global response, particularly its fascinating take on Israel; the horror of zombies on a plane (the worst nightmare I can imagine, one that makes snakes on a plane look like a pile of puke); the ironic solution to the zombie plague Gerry comes up with–bravo.  All well done.

I never read WWZ, but the film felt to me like what Queen of the Damned became when translated from book to film. QOTD was probably my favorite book ever when I first read it in high school (for a few years, everything I read by Anne Rice was probably my favorite book ever.  Now, like Poe, I can’t read her stuff at all).  The film, which covered events in QOTD and its predecessor, The Vampire Lestat, was an abomination for a lot of reasons, but underpinning all these reasons was its fatal flaw: trying to fit, say, 600 pages of a novel into a single movie is never a good idea (see: mini-series Pride & Prejudice vs. feature film Pride & Prejudice). WWZ feels like a film that would have benefited from narrowing its vision to focus more on the familial stakes/drama, or discarding that altogether and really going for the geopolitical stakes/drama.  It feels, much like the forgotten Tomas, stuck between worlds.

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