World War Z Fails The Zombie Bite Test

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.

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Comments

    I bet I could make a great world war Z film or mini series. This is just utter crap. This isn't world warZ. They just too the name and made a zombie movie.

      I prefer my in-character sale of the "non-fiction" Zombie Survival Guide on ebay (including an in-character purchase by an excellent buyer) to this sad travesty. :(

      Zombie Jesus is weeping.

    What's with all the towers of zombies? In the second picture I can kinda get the sense that they're piling over eachother to reach a high-point, Starship-Troopers-style, but I can't quite suss out the first picture... Mostly because they're towered at an odd angle and they appear to be carrying a bus with them :P
    Guess I'll have to see it to find out

    "Milla Jovovich’s Alice in Resident Evil hooks us with an intriguing backstory"

    Did you really write this? And they let you review films?

    Holy cheeseballs batman. Holy cheeseballs.

      Yeah, as soon as I saw that line about Rez Evil, bam, this entire review became bogus for me.

      I saw about half an hour of the latest resident evil movie last night, i wish i hadnt, oh how i wish i hadnt.

    Max Brooks’ novel World War Z is one of the greatest zombie stories ever written, partly for reasons that make it basically unfilmable.

    I agree as a cinematic movie short of a trilogy spanning the one book, it's unfilmable. However, like many others have said, as a 10 - 13 episode HBO series, with each season investigating different stages of the zombies rise, infection, attack, humans regroup and then humans fighting back and conquering them, it could be flat out *AMAZING*. The journalist could be shown talking to people every season, sharing their stories about each stage of the 'war'. New stories could be made for the series as well as using all the ones from the book. Alas we won't know now, Brad Pitts fucked us up by taking those rights...

      Oh man now I am so depressed that that isn't what was made :( The book is one of the best pieces of zombie fiction I have ever read and the fact that they've even managed to screw up the zombies is depressing. Like why are they fast and insectile? It might be cool but it's certainly not the zombies that were in the book :/

      Actually kind of crowd sourcing the novel would work - set up small indie style production units in different countries, then tidy up the effects, marketing etc centrally. It would be a logistics challenge but very doable, and you could keep the novel's great structure...

        Heh that would'nt be a bad idea. The way they did VHS and VHS2 springs to mind. Get a different director for each segment, to get a different feel. God I loved VHS2... 1 was good but 2... wow. The zombie segment in that was spectacular :D

    THESE AREN'T ZOMBIES.
    28 DAYS LATER WAS NOT A ZOMBIE FILM.
    THIS IS NOT A ZOMBIE FILM.

      Indeed, even without the caps, they've gone to lengths to explain they're all 'infected' in this movie. Which sucks. The WWZ book zombies were undead ghouls... the best sort.

        They mention zombies a lot in the movie.

          Indeed, but they also go to lengths, the director did, to explain they're using 'an infection'.

    This reads like a blog post on facebook. First, display you have some knowledge of storytelling beyond how much you love the book and THEN write.

    I actually really enjoyed this movie. It had a great opening and like a lot of big budget movies I was expecting it to fall short about midway... this movie did not do that. It really felt like an extension or companion to the book and that's how IMO it should be received. I think that those that have read the book would appreciate it. But for those that haven't read the book may now feel compelled to do so.

      Im intending on seeing it when it hits DVD but Im not gonna race to the cinema to catch it, other more compelling movies for me to see with my son, like Man of Steel. Monster University too on tuesday ;)

    Horrible plot holes ruined any sense of enjoyment for me.

    Spoiler alert:

    If it takes 10 seconds or even 10 minutes to infect someone and turn them this thing could never get to anywhere that required sea or air transport to get to ie. Australia.

    Steal RV in middle of Manhattan to escape, overhead view shows panic and traffic gridlock, absolute chaos, blockaded bridges. Cut to scene with RV driving down country road. What the...?

    They have an infographic on their boat telling them where in the world is infected and how many have died. Yet no one knows the entire nation of Israel is alive and well? Not a single person? It takes a plot device dressed as a CIA operative to inform Pitt of this, who immediately believes him and risks everyone's life to follow it up. This one really got me.

    On that note, if Israel put up a 50 metre high wall around itself, people would notice. I'm pretty sure it'd be major news.

    Just like 2012, it's convenient when your plane crashes in walking distance of your destination.

    You give a guy a satellite phone, but you don't give him a phone charger.

    If terminal/diseased hosts don't get targeted, pretty sure every major city would have had tens of thousands of patients who would have survived and people would have noticed fairly early.

    Zombies in the states can barge through barricaded and locks doors. Zombies in Wales can't get through doors with windows and 3 people pushing them closed. Also a lot slower and unathletic (maybe as they were all scientists originally).

    I'm assuming the young boy has cancer?

    And not really a plot hole, but like the walking dead, the majority of female characters, except the macho IDF chick, exist to fuck up and put everyone in more danger. Awesome.

    Last edited 23/06/13 12:32 am

    Just saw this film tonight. Man was I disappointed. I was really hoping for a good old fashioned zombie movie, wish actual zombies. Where were the zombies, where was the blood? You kind of need both of them to have a zombie movie. The director really shied from any violence too. Not a single compelling character either, generic was the word annalee used and that was spot on.

    saw this last night and i thought it was awesome!

    I have no idea how anyone can compare this to resident evil. its NOTHING even remotely similar other than "ZOMBIE" and this movie actually had a PLOT unlike resident evil where movie after movie nothing seems to change and it just action sequence after action sequence. Only downside i thought that this movie could have used more blood and stuff (ma15+ rating needed). The M rating makes the movie soft as you dont see anything, not even a bite! that was the only downside for me.

    Terrible review, did you actually sit down and watch the movie or just review from what you saw on the trailer?

      Yeah really, to write this review you would have to have only seen the trailer. It was great, and honestly I'm glad they didn't try to follow the book too close. Wouldn't have worked. The movie was fast paced, well acted, and had me caring about characters in the first five minutes so all of the action mattered.

      Agreed. I know the movie has little if not minimal connection to the book, it was still a good watch. It took the usual zombie chaser movie, and put a more emotional spin on things. it gave a more realistic insight into what survivors would really do in the event on a 'zombie' outbreak.

      not everyone would be arming up or going on a rampage against the infected.

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