World War Z (2013)

Of Zombies and Movie Men

In graduate school, I took a course in modernist British literature in which we read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. That 1916 novel builds to a quintessential example of James Joyce’s concept of the epiphany: bildungsroman protagonist Stephen Dedalus stands on a beach realizing that he must leave Ireland if he is to grow beyond stifling parochialism. In the course, I wrote a celebratory paper about the much loathed 1977 film version by Joseph Strick in which the crucial scene receives less than ten seconds of screen time: Stephen goes to the beach, stands there, and leaves without any transformation whatsoever. It is an exquisite moment that demonstrates there is no requirement that a film do what literary scholars deem important just because they say so.

It thus shocks me that I am about to utter the following words: I am appalled that the Brad Pitt version of World War Z directed by Marc Forster, an adaptation of Max Brooks’ stunning 2006 novel, is a) so terrible, and b) has absolutely nothing to do with a novel which is in every way more intelligent and engaging. If Strick’s film is a deconstruction of Joyce’s novel, a stab at its heart by refusing to visualize the epiphany, then Forster’s film is a molecular dissimulation, a Portrait that not only eschews the ephipany, but the equivalents of Stephen Deadalus, James Joyce, and indeed all of Ireland itself.

Following in the realm of zombie social criticism best exemplified in American cinema by George Romero, Brooks’ World War Z is the Citizen Kane of zombie fiction. Told in retrospect after humanity has been all but decimated by a viral pandemic, an interviewer pieces together eyewitness testimony from the people who fought the brutal war. Just as Thompson the reporter in Orson Welles’ cinematic masterpiece relies on his journalistic skills only to miss the fact that Charles Foster Kane is the emblem of a corrupt America isolated amidst a burning Europe, the people to whom the medical doctor speaks in World War Z end up describing the final downfall of humanity in spite of their presumed military success against zombies.

The best of Romero’s zombie films are razor-sharp indictments of American hypocrisy. In 1968’s The Night of the Living Dead, we come to learn that it is not the zombies whom we should fear, but the police who use meat hooks to burn them in public pyres, a direct engagement with the treatment of 1960s African-Americans, figured by the film’s martyred central character, Ben, killed not by zombies but instead by an inarticulate redneck (“That’s another one for the fire”). In the best zombie film ever made, Dawn of the Dead, we find the monsters in a 1978 shopping mall, mindlessly consuming, thus expressing the notion that the zombie apocalypse would have no effect on our civilization whatsoever.

Max Brooks’ World War Z forwards a different Romero film every ten pages. In dozens of witty social commentaries, Brooks uses his master’s lessons to tell us exactly what ails us, and it most certainly has nothing to do with viral loads. In the most relevant cinema culture passage, a group of Hollywood celebrities hire a security expert to keep them safe from the invading hordes. They spare no expense in making their Beverly Hills mansion into a seemingly impregnable fortress. However, much to the consternation of our storyteller, they insist on turning their isolation into a reality show, webcasting their location to the outside world. The celebrities are brutally killed, not by zombies, but the crazed jealous remainder of humanity who overrun the security forces protecting them.

The novel’s greatest social commentary involves an apartheid-loving South African who in the 1980s developed Plan Orange, a diabolical scheme to save rich white people from a feared black uprising from the ghettos. Because there are orders of magnitude more black folks in South Africa, the plan involves protecting isolated pockets of rich white people, sacrificing everyone else in the country, white or black. The joke is that even the lunatic masterminds of apartheid find the plan too radical. The plan’s inventor, Redeker is relegated to obscurity, until, of course, the zombie apocalypse. Redeker tells the story of living in isolation until one day there is a knock on his door. Answering to black soldiers, he figures they’ve finally come to execute him for his role in propping up the evil apartheid government. Instead, he is whisked to the bunker of the ANC, where a Nelson Mandela figure hugs him and asks him to save their country. The South African plan, protecting small pockets of humans and obliterating everyone else, zombies and human survivors alike, proves the blue print for humanity’s survival of the plague. The novel is littered with these ironies, in which surviving humans commit despicable acts, such that by the end, when humanity has survived, it is not at all clear whether what has survived is any more human than the mindless zombies they fight.

As for the film, none of these startling narrative inventions survived the moviemaking apocalypse represented by Forster’s World War Z. As a popular culture scholar, I recommend avoiding it like the plague. Read Brooks’ novel, and then go to see a different movie, one not about zombies. Might I suggest one about monsters going to college? Rather than Brad Pitt completely ignoring a brilliant novel, at least those furry Pixar creatures make one fondly recall Animal House.

– Walter Metz