Though zombies in film have been around since the 1930s, they achieved infamy with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). For the first time, they terrified audiences on a global scale. Now jump forty-five years later. Zombies are no longer feared. They are something for Tumblr groupies to reblog as they work on their zombie survival manuals. Despite films like Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) and 28 Days Later (2002) returning zombies to horror prominence, the commodification of zombies destroyed the abject realism they once presented. Director Marc Forster finds this realism on World War Z (2013), loosely based off the novel by Max Brooks. The film follows Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a former United Nations employee who is called back into work to deal with a global zombie outbreak. His journey to find a vaccine takes him around the world, meeting people who share different experiences of the crisis. While there are some failures both in the dialogue and the thematic elements, Forster achieves some success in reinventing the zombie as a horror icon.
Forster could not have picked a better zombie book to adapt than Max Brook’s horror epic. Brook’s novel is in the form of interviews conducted ten years after World War Z has ended. The only constant character is the narrator, but Brooks keeps him in the background to let the stories of military personnel, politicians, and civilians take precedence, demonstrating that the outbreak was a global struggle as opposed to an individual effort. What made the book terrifying was the casual manner in which the information is presented, making readers feel World War Z can actually happen.
Such a prolific novel presents problems for a film adaption. By centering the film on one character, you risk taking out the critical global element from the book. The film remedies this through Lane’s interactions with the people he meets on his journey for a vaccine. His journey takes him from South Korea to Israel, then to the Welsh countryside. The people Lane meets have their own story to tell. The camera lingers on these individual people, throwing Lane into the background. Sadly, the richness of the stories drop considerably by the end of the film, when Lane returns to the forefront, making sure audiences knows that he is the hero. Thankfully, the sense is not lost that there is a comfort in knowing that other people are going through the same catastrophe.
An interesting artistic element is the film’s lack of gore. This is established in the Philadelphia scene, when the outbreak is first introduced. People run frantically down the streets, but it is not evident what from. This continues for an extended amount of time to build tension. Audiences know that the zombies are coming, but they are not sure when. When the zombies appear, they blend seamlessly with the rest of the crowd. This is because they are not dripping with blood or slipping on their own guts. Their attacks are also clean; Philadelphia is not painted in red corn syrup. What Forster presents is fear that is not ingrained in gore, but in claustrophobia. The tight and quick camera pans only serve to heighten this feeling, showing audiences that there is simply nowhere to hide. It is more terrifying than the thought of being devoured.
Despite strong strides, the film falls short of its potential. Choosing to focus on Lane not only waters down the theme of global catastrophe, but it ruins audience connectivity to the film. Lane is able to survive the zombie disaster because of his UN training and almost fantastical resourcefulness. It makes audiences feel that they could not survive this outbreak simply because they are too ‘average’ as compared to Lane. There is great tension in the film, but there are moments in the film in which tension is created unnecessarily. Those moments only serve to take us out of the brutal realism of the film. Lastly, dialogue in the film is inconsistent, going from truly thought-provoking monologues and exchanges to cheap lines to tie up loose ends in the film. The audiences are not trusted to understand the nuances of the film. Without that trust, it is hard to break the genre mold.
The film is an interesting watch, but it will never be more than a summer blockbuster. While the film has its moments, World War Z will never advance the genre.