Marc Forster’s 2013 World War Z was a flabby mess – apparently such a nightmare to produce that in spite of raking in $500 million at the global box office it cannot muster a sequel eight years later. With that being said, the film definitely tapped into something of the global zeitgeist at the time, almost in spite of itself – and that makes it worth a second look.
While it cost the princely sum of $190million to produce (presumably most of that went on Brad Pitt’s hair), the blockbusting take on undead Armageddon features some beautiful moments of DIY anti-ghoul action. Former UN employee Gerry Lane (Pitt) uses a child’s toy to time the incubation time of the virus, and wraps his arm in thick, glossy magazines to protect against bites – bringing an unexpected every-man vibe to his presence – in a genre that is all too often dominated by gun-fetishism (as seen in Zack Snyder’s misinterpretation of Dawn of the Dead,or his much-dreaded return to the genre Army of the Dead).
However, while the makeshift precautions Gerry makes are useful in one-on-one situations, the film pulls no punches in showing them – and through them, the viewer’s own take on “how to fight zombies” – to be grossly inadequate against the insurmountable swarms of “Zekes.” Confronted by the billions of festering dead, you cannot help but feel a gut-wrenching hopelessness. You feel as if the carpet has been pulled from beneath you, your previous notion of ‘fun’ battling the dead now lost inside the crowd of gnashing teeth that confronts you. And that is frankly, the best thing that World War Z has to offer.
Somewhere along the way, films about the near-annihilation of humanity have become all too familiar – and with that has crept the notion that “I know better than this – I could survive the dead rising, it’s a piece of piss!” But after witnessing the billions of infected assaulting the towering walls that surround Jerusalem – and overcoming them (not a spoiler, that’s in the trailer) – suddenly hiding in your neighbour’s tree house armed only with a hammer, a six-pack of warm lager and a bumper book of crosswords doesn’t seem such a good deal after all.
When I watched the film in the cinema (remember those?) surrounded by potential infection-fodder, I did start feeling like a big bag of Pedigree Chum that’d been inexplicably abandoned in the middle of Crufts. That made the film extraordinarily tense, as well as making Gerry (who otherwise would have been as relatable to as real-life Pitt) someone you actually want to survive! It was something I hadn’t really felt since I saw 28 Days Later back when I was 12 – and it’s a feeling I’ve missed.
However, if you had to choose, in a heartbeat, you’d still say the film made on a (comparatively) shoe-string budget of £5million, and 11 years earlier, was the better picture. Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s movie is given credit as having reinvigorated (or reanimated even) the zombie sub-genre, and it did so not only because it proved suitably terrifying, but because it served as a cutting social commentary. 28 Days Later not only played beautifully on global panic surrounding SARS and bird-flu – it featured distrustful establishment figures who were as damaging to society as the infected, relatively empowered female characters, and a powerful message that ordinary people are stronger together, rather than fighting for solitary survival in a cannibalistic dystopia.
World War Z on the other hand makes a rather different point. While it features a protagonist fulfilling the struggles most people of my generation have at one time or another imagined, this is not a film for the everyman. Or for that matter, the everywoman.
What does an undead horde represent?
As Gerry jet-sets all over the place in search for that illusive cure, the central theme of the film becomes a world-tour of ruling class fears. Consider the opening credits and you may see what I’m driving at here – as the titles play, they are backed by images of Piers Morgan and other insects scuttling across the screen in their multitudes. What is made clear from this unsettling imagery is a subliminal (at the very least) fear in Hollywood of the swarm.
We are implored time and again to see things from the inside of the walls where a tiny minority thrive whilst the outside world goes to hell – we are taught to fear the herd outside thrashing at the gates, and we await with dread for the masses to tear us (the developed, wealthy westerners) apart. We are, in other words, seeing the world through the eyes of the oppressors, the profiteers; the 1%. Most disconcertingly, this is illustrated by Gerry’s visit to Israel, in which it is suggested, rather distastefully, that the walls built in reality for colonising Palestine and to oppress and marginalise the indigenous population, were in fact built in preparation for the coming onslaught of zombies.
Indeed, the military personnel informing us of this cite the Arab uprising as a reason for being naturally cautious – making the unsettling comparison of beaten and down-trodden masses railing against an oppressive minority all the more blatant. This paints Israel’s regime of segregation as a natural precaution – protecting itself from the innate savagery of the Palestinians/zombies walled outside waiting to destroy “civilisation”. It is a grim, frankly racist, analogy – and one which makes it disturbingly easy to imagine if this film had been made 30 years earlier, Gerry Lane would have arrived in South Africa, and been told by a member of the National Party that they’d disenfranchised black people because “they would have voted for a zombie apocalypse.”
In the years since 2011 (as the film neared being finally rewritten) when revolts spread across Northern Africa and the Middle East, as millions of people fought for the downfall of a minority cowering behind walls or hiding in compounds; when the discontent seemed to jump across borders, oceans and continents, it was as if the rage of the exploited and oppressed had gone viral. Whilst I don’t believe it was a conscious influence on the production of this film, the fear amongst the wealthy and powerful has clearly permeated Hollywood’s collective consciousness.
Frederic Jameson once said that “someone once said it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” (everyone else seems to think that ‘someone’ was him – so I think Jameson just likes to be a pain in the arse) and unfortunately you can see that very unimaginative disease on full display in WWZ. All over the world, the infamous 1% is living in fear – fear that those ordinary people whose health and energy they sap to live in luxury might finally rise up. And as the discontent now spreads to South America in Brazil, and Europe in Turkey and Greece, not to mention the meeting of 4000 in London’s People’s Assembly this weekend, it must feel to global capitalism’s dominant class as if the world really is about to end.
And that’s where WWZ fails as part of its own genre – it might be brilliantly innovative in its visuals but it can’t think outside the box! So, while most zombie films ask, almost by default, the question “If we are saving the world, what manner of world are we saving?” there is no such soul searching here. It might easily have been addressed after the apparent betrayal of Gerry’s family, who are sacrificed without second thought by whatever surviving hierarchy remains. The Lanes become pawns in the selfish struggle to live through the outbreak at all costs.
Those up high in the hierarchy behave as cannibalistically as the undead, if not more so – and any zombie-based story worth its salt would challenge that (Land of the Dead, The Walking Dead, In the Flesh etc). But as that’s how most of Hollywood’s elite, as with most elites, would behave in that scenario, it’s completely forgiven as Gerry strides home to his family, looking like the star of a dystopian commercial for Armageddon Pour Homme. Charming.
In closing then, it’s probably best to say this has been a review on two levels as usual. On the one hand; I obviously would recommend watching this for those keen (as I am) for some summertime shocks. It was terrifying fun at times, and brilliantly imaginative in the use of CGI to really make the undead into an unstoppable collective.
On the other hand, the film’s pro-establishment take on the zombie genre subverts some of the greatest traditions of undead films – it’s a far cry from the social satires of George A Romero, which whilst they may be less scary, had infinitely more to say for themselves. One thing it does tell us of value though, is that the ruling class are scared still of a society united against them. There are spectres stalking Europe, and they want brains…