World War Z is basically a big-budget B-movie. A lot of the action sequences are lifted straight out of Resident Evil, and its basic tropes are a somewhat unstable mixture of disaster movie and political thriller. But there are a couple of great zombie movie ideas inside it, struggling to get out.
Max Brooks’ novel World War Z is one of the greatest zombie stories ever written, partly for reasons that make it basically unfilmable. Brooks borrowed the novel’s structure from the nonfiction books of Studs Terkel, a journalist who specialised in interviewing people about massive historical events and editing their stories together to form a dazzling whole. The novel World War Z is told from the perspectives of so many people — speaking to the narrator — that there’s no way a movie could capture all of them. Still, the idea of turning a zombie pandemic into a war story is fascinating and could have translated easily to film.
Unfortunately, that’s not the direction that Brad Pitt and his production company wanted to go with World War Z. They filmed a lot of scenes dealing with the politics and war aspects of the zombie story, and all of them wound up on the cutting room floor. Instead, we get a really generic story about a really generic, nice white guy (Pitt) who works as a ninja for the U.N. and loves his generic family and has a generic goal in the movie which is: Find out what caused the zombie outbreak in some generic and highly unspecified way.
Basically, you’ve got the same characters and motivations as you’d find in Armageddon and most other disaster movies. Find a thing to stop the thing! And, like these other movies, World War Z delivers on special effects awesomeness even when its plot is a bit lackluster. These zombies aren’t just fast. They are fast and insectile. They create massive swarms, climbing over top of each other to form human bridges and ladders, or hurling themselves off buildings, splatting, and getting up again. They aren’t like the living dead so much as humans who have become giant bugs, their bodies indestructible vectors of disease.
The problem is that movies need more than a scary monster to make us care. We need a little worldbuilding. Unfortunately, all we get here is a “shut up and be scared” plot. We never understand where the zombie plague came from, nor do we learn much about the zombies themselves. We almost find out about the political events that led to the eruption of the zombie plague, during a few intriguing scenes where Pitt finds himself in Jerusalem, but then that plot is dropped.
We never get any sense of urgency about stopping the zombies either, partly because Pitt’s character is such a dull cipher. All we know is that he has to do this mission or the UN will kick his family off the plague-free barge where all the mucky-mucks are stationed. So basically our “hero” isn’t even interested in the fate of humanity. He’s only doing this job because the evil UN is threatening his family.
The only time the story of the disease really pops is when we meet a snarky scientist who is doing a nice riff on Jeff Goldblum’s character from Jurassic Park. As the action revs up, Dr. Snark gives a great speech about how nature is a bitch and promises, “Oh yeah — we’ll find something.” But this movie doesn’t care about the mysteries of science any more than it cares about political conspiracies. Then that thread is dropped too.
So World War Z has got no political subtext, no selfless heroism, and no scientific mystery to solve. Where does that leave us? Basically with a bunch of chase scenes and one semi-OK, not-quite-solution to the zombie plague (gotta leave room for a sequel!). The problem, as I hinted earlier, is that the fun of these action scenes is halved when you’re not intrigued by any of the people in them. Looking awesome will only get you so far. Milla Jovovich’s Alice in Resident Evil hooks us with an intriguing backstory, and Bruce Willis in Armageddon is Bruce Fucking Willis. Yippie ki yay, motherfuckers. Brad Pitt is just kind of mopey. And why the hell does the UN have a ninja, anyway?
One of the problems with big-budget blockbuster movies is that they beg the question, “Was this flick worth all that cash?” It’s kind of unfair to ask, because a movie should be judged on its own merits. But in the case of World War Z, I think the question is relevant because it’s part of a genre whose most profound and influential entries — from Night of the Living Dead to Evil Dead and even 28 Days Later — had tiny to medium budgets.
You might even say that low budgets are a hallmark of the zombie genre. Part of the urgency of these movies is their visceral, DiY feel, the sense that they were slapped together in a fever just like a zombie. The fact that they aren’t designed to be summer blockbusters also gives their makers more freedom to tie their monsters to political issues, or to weird scientific ideas. A genuinely B-grade zombie movie can be spiky. It can bite.
Maybe the problem with World War Z is that zombie movies require a certain amount of weirdness or subversiveness to succeed. Turning a zombie pandemic into a generic disaster movie robs the zombies of their dirty, nasty edginess and robs the disaster of its epic scope. You could see the freaky movie this might have been flailing beneath the surface. But unfortunately it got swept away by this fun but forgettable bit of monster froth.