** MILD SPOILERS **
There’s a quote by Stephen King concerning adapting books to film that’s always stuck with me. I tried to dig it up but couldn’t find the exact wording, so I’ll paraphrase: for a novelist, a Hollywood deal is the ultimate double-handed compliment.
They like your story enough to pay you a lot of money for the rights to do it as a movie . . . then proceed to pick it apart, change it, and tell you exactly why it won’t ‘work’.
World War Z author Max Brooks can certainly affirm that. When I first heard that WWZ was going to be a film, my initial reaction was that it wouldn’t work. The format of the story, of an overarching narrative on a global scale, told by multiple characters, each of whom had their own unique perspective, could never be captured in a two-hour film.
A multiple-hour TV mini-series, maybe. But not a single film.
But still . . . the idea of a film that, like the book, was a faux post-apocalyptic documentary? Done right, that could be an incredibly powerful statement. And if they were going to throw enough money at it, something that never happens in the zombie genre, where filmmakers usually struggle to portray the end of the world on a shoestring budget . . . I immediately thought of one of the book’s key sequences, told by an average U.S. Army infantryman, Todd Wainio, about the ‘Battle of Yonkers’, where things absolutely hit the fan and the technologically advanced U.S. military with all its computer assisted glory failed to stop an encroaching mass horde of walking cadavers shambling out of a devastated New York City and were completely and utterly routed, unprepared to fight an enemy that couldn’t be shocked or awed — in front of TV images being broadcast around the world, no less, feeding panic rather than quelling it.
Now, *that* could work. That would be worth $100+ million.
Or the story of Jesika Hendricks, a teenage girl from Wisconsin who unwisely followed the media’s panicked message of ‘go north’, since the zombies didn’t fare well in the cold, did just that: ill-prepared to be a refugee trying to survive in the frigid Canadian wilderness where the fellowship of the haphazardly-established camp quickly became a nightmare, devolving into eventual cannibalism . . . imagine watching a talented actress sit in front of a camera and tell this story, relieve those horrible moments as if they were real. Reality TV has made us a culture of voyeurs accustomed to watching people confess their darkest moments.
Now that tendency could be used against us as an audience. The right director, the right talent, you wouldn’t hear so much as a peep in the auditorium.
Max Brooks had pretty much handed Hollywood everything they needed but a finished screenplay. It wasn’t rocket science to stick with the same emotionally laden oral history format that put the book on the New York Times bestseller lists.
And Hollywood, true to form, couldn’t manage the level of intelligence needed to spark the fuse on a bottle rocket, let alone a Titan.
A multiple character narrative told after the fact? Not enough in-your-face drama and cheap thrills. People won’t understand the concept of the events already taken place, and the stories of the survivors being preserved for future generations. (And maybe they’re not far off-base . . . I was lucky enough to have caught the first Paranormal Activity during its initial limited theatrical ‘preview’ release, during which I heard a twenty-ish female ask, loudly and without a single trace of humor or irony, if what we were watching was actually ‘real’. I could feel my grey matter wither and die by proxy.)
Nah, let’s stick with just one protagonist who is supposed to be able to witness all these events on a global scale. Oh, and we need to accelerate the apocalypse to squeeze it into a two-hour format, so let’s make the shambling undead sprinting maniacs, who when viewed from the air will allow for some pretty writhing CGI hordes and oh, how convenient — our single protagonist is going to spend a lot of time in the air being schlepped from one locale to another to be able to get those aerial shots.
In other words, let’s take an elegantly written, highly intelligent work and turn it into a mindless summer blockbuster.
Now, I’ve got nothing against the mental bubblegum of summer tentpole films — they’re fun, and sometimes the spectacle can make up for plot holes you could taxi a whole wing of B-29 bombers through.
But as far as I’m concerned, the name World War Z shouldn’t be associated with such a product.
Initially, I was going to pass on WWZ just from watching the trailers. I don’t care for fast zombies, period. If you’re calling them ‘infected’, as in 28 Days Later, where they’re still alive but in a state of savage mindlessness? Okay, I’ll buy that.
But ‘fast’ zombies just push the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point — the whole trade-off with traditional Romero-style zombies is that while the protagonist-survivors are vastly outnumbered by the horde, they still have the advantage of rational thought. The idea of walking cadavers may not be very ‘realistic’ and difficult to explain in terms of actual science, but there’s still the logic that whatever is allowing these corpses to stagger around, they’re handicapped by the fact that they’re dead. So the humans stand a chance — which they may, granted, summarily blow by bad decision making, stress, and turning on one another, which is the whole fun of the zombie genre, the fact that the worst monsters are the ones who don’t have a single rotting scratch on them.
‘Infected’, as in 28 Days Later, are still human and while they can pull off some near-superhuman feats because they feel no pain and will push themselves beyond the limits of ‘normal’ endurance in order to bring down their prey, there’s still that feel that again, they have a weakness — infected or not, the human body still has its limits.
Fast zombies are all of the strengths and none of the weaknesses. They’re overpowered and force the storyteller into a series of eye-rolling conviences to allow the survivors to get away and keep on drawing breath. It’s like watching ordinary people fleeing a swarm of insects where a single sting will be lethal — if you want to go for that eye-rolling B-movie route, I can be down with that sort of fun, where the plotting is so bad it’s good.
But when you’re trying for a serious sort of take on the material, fast zombies don’t work. The filmmakers can justify their decision by saying they studied some species of ant THAT REALLY EXISTS and blah blah blah.
The fact of the matter is they had to play the ‘our zombies are different’ card out of arrogance and because the idea of armies of CGI teeth-gnashing sprinters will hopefully hold short attention spans on the screen and keep them off of their smartphones. Never mind that it makes the survivors need to be almost superhuman themselves to escape the biological equivalent of greased lightning strikes where a single antagonist can overtake them and a horde would be able to chew its way from coast to coast like a swarm of locusts in weeks.
And it’s not like a certain television show that regularly draws in record numbers stuck with Romero’s formula and made it work over the equivalent of what? Fifteen average length films? World War Z should’ve been The Walking Dead exponentially amplified, showing the sort of imagery and scenarios that would burn through an entire TWD season’s budget in a few minutes.
Again, not rocket science.
After all the pre-release brouhaha over the film, which included producer and star Brad Pitt calling the initial cut of the film ‘atrocious’, I figured I’d check it out. I’m not proud and certainly am not above rubbernecking at the scene of an idiotic cinematic accident, especially at the drive-in, where if I’m bored or frustrated, I can amuse myself by making snide comments without unduly bothering my fellow moviegoers. (Especially when the second half of the evening’s double feature was the even more idiotic grim Man of Steel, which was all but guaranteed in my book to elevate the quality of World War Z exponentially … which it absolutely did.)
Truth be told, WWZ wasn’t the train wreck I expected — and this is even after seeing hackmeister J. Michael Straczynski’s name in the opening credits as screenwriter, something I hadn’t been aware of. The inspirationally bereft Straczynski apparently hasn’t met the work of a more talented and visionary creator he can’t bind and bend over a table in quest of a paycheck — see the Before Watchmen comics. At least Max Brooks is in good company with Alan Moore. The fact that JMS wrote this and Pitt called it, in his own words, atrocious, to the point where screenwriter Damon Lindelof had to be brought in to salvage the project, made me burst out into laughter. I was in a good mood before the very first fade in.
I’m not saying WWZ is a great movie: it’s not. It does have a few interesting moments, such as a taught sequence early on where Pitt’s Gerry Lane and his family needs to raid a grocery / pharmacy in quest of supplies and crucial asthma medication for his young daughter that at the epicenter of a free-for-all looting spree.
Unfortunately, the film has no real coherent vision and suffers from an identity crisis. By turns it wants to be a medical pandemic thriller, a large-scale eye-popping disaster film, and a tale of the zombie apocalypse, and in not being able to decide what it wants to really be, succeeds well at none of them.
Where the film really trips over its fleet undead feet is very awkward attempts to try to interject points from the book, like a literary skin graft. The worst of which is the absolutely painful manner in which the word ‘zombie’ is brought up about twenty or so minutes in. Since, you know, it’s not really a zombie film at this point, but since ‘Z’ is in the title, it’s got to be in there at least once, and you can almost tell this was just tacked on because some focus group audience member brought it up. While are ties to some of the backstory of the novel, with out the proper context, they’re just seemingly random events, such as a nuclear detonation that is supposed to be an admonishment of how a global crisis of the dead returning to life might be used an excuse to finally settle long-standing feuds, such as the cultural animosity between Iraq and Pakistan.
The film reduces this to a mere plot point — the nuke’s EMP simply acts as an obstacle Pitt’s character needs to overcome to continue his journey. Zombie films have always had a strong undercurrent of social commentary, but WWZ strips those juicy bits out to be just another loud, obnoxious action franchise using zombies and global collapse as a mere backdrop.
Lindelof actually does manage an interesting twist in the end in dealing with the titular Zs that could’ve been something that propelled the film into an effective sequel, allowing it finally to stand on its own . . . but then the filmmakers all blink and in a moment of zero confidence, they provide a montage denouement that completely robs a follow-up of any drama.
Imagine if George Lucas decided to end A New Hope by covering the key events of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in a two-minute sequence with cheesy faux inspirational voiceover, just to hedge his bets in case he didn’t get to make another Star Wars.
Oh, and to provide an ‘uplifting’ final moment to let us know that in the end, the Rebel Alliance does win . . . because you wouldn’t want an audience leaving an apocalyptic film feeling a little down.
Had Pitt and his creative partners completely distanced themselves from the book, re-titled the film, and played this up as an original creation — which it more or less was in the final version — it would’ve made the experience far more palatable. And as a bonus, it would’ve left the door open for someone to come along and actually do an authentic adaptation of Brooks’ masterpiece, so everyone would’ve won.
Instead, World War Z ends up being yet another forgettable, expensive Hollywood folly, a ridiculously expensive yet wholly mediocre creativity-by-committee movie that isn’t an entirely horrible way to sink a machete into a couple of hours, but has no lasting resonance, and is more defined by what it could’ve been than what it actually was.
Thanks for stopping by Public Domain! Shamble On is our semi-regular feature covering all things zombie (which, granted, has literally been 99.9% Walking Dead reviews up to this point). Starting later this summer, Shamble On will become part of PD‘s regular rotation, covering all types of undead entertainment, from video games, novels, films, comics, and of course, the fourth season of The Walking Dead when it begins in the fall.