World War Z (2013)
It has been with a rabid level of bloodthirsty glee that Hollywood critics and commentators have been monitoring the diseased production of World War Z, the Brad Pitt undead end of the world blockbuster whose bloated production budget and convoluted shooting schedule have prematurely doomed the project as a catastrophic failure on the scale of the drowned Waterworld, the sun stroked Ishtar or gut-shot Heavens Gate. The now infamous Vanity Fair expose is a dossier of Tinseltown turbulence, with an ineffectual and uncertain director leaving key design decisions to the very last-minute, of conflicted scribes ineffectually tarnishing an already distressed and shattered script, of logistic and transport failures resulting in multi-million dollar daily delays, of a confused crew and cast shell-shocked and perpetually jetlagged due to the films global location schedule. But perhaps all was not lost, perhaps there is still a shard of hope amongst the holocaust, as even the terrifying tales of the entire third act of the film being mercilessly jettisoned before a total rewrite and reshoot to the tune of $30 million seem to have been tackled by a frenzied charm offence by Paramount’s marketing department, as initial reports trickled out of a flawed but fascinating movie, with a global scale of horror never before envisioned for such a B movie premise – the first zombie outbreak epic.
I liked the book a lot, as a Studs Terkel influenced holistic account of the inevitable zombie invasion its lack of a central protagonist was deftly refreshing, author Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft) preferring to examine the disintegrating social fabric across a variety of countries through a zoetrope of individual experiences as the multiplying undead horde seizes the globe, before a spirited and innovative Götterdämmerung results in some sort of mutually embalmed stalemate. But book and film are different in dimensions and fashions too numerous to list here, so in a spirit egalitarian balance I approached this film as its own entity, pushing aside the source text which evidently retained premise and title alone in favour of the archetypical heroes journey narrative as Brad Pitt stars as Gerry Lane, a former UN inspector whom has retired from his demanding job to be a homemaker for his two daughters and wife Karin (Mireille Enos). During a casual trip into Philadelphia the Lanes are meshed in a citywide traffic jam, with ominous and garbled news reports suggesting that something is occurring, and distant yells soon detonate with a cabalistic clarity – it’s undead pandemic time as the zombie apocalypse is finally here. Fortunately for Lane he’s still in the UN’s Rolodex and he and his family are precariously plucked to safety, and in order to retain their solace from the global carnage Lane reluctantly agrees to spearhead a frantic global effort to eradicate the ghoulish epidemic, to source the genesis of the infection and save humanity from the infected scourge.
Armchair cultural commentators have weighted in with the perfectly valid point that in what other dimensions of human artistic or scientific endeavor – other than some grand unified ambition such as CERN of course – in what other aspect of contemporary society would you commit such horrific amounts of money, upwards of $300 million dollars (including marketing ‘essentials’) without even having a finalised and solid gold, costed and robust script before filming commenced? I mean that’s like three or four hospitals, a half-dozen schools, or even a Goldman Sachs Executive Board’s full year remuneration package for fucks sake – it’s simply obscene. This film is instantly immortalised as the absurd apex of a particularly chaotic Hollywood production model and the confusion, illiteracy and utter dereliction of horror, tension or shared storytelling logic lays decaying on the screen like a mouldering corpse. Quite simply this is a terrible film, and one faintly amusing black joke aside (which of course I’m not going to reveal) I can’t seize on one single, redeeming feature of this horrendous massacre. Yes I’m a ‘slow zombie’ genre kinda guy, and the decision of formulating the existential threat as some formation of a swarming ant colony whose shrieks and virulent vacuity isn’t remotely plausible or terrifying, even within the films self-contained genre struck universe. There is no absolutely no sense of a global conflict despite the films travelogue from North America to the Korean peninsula, from the Middle East to Western Europe, a fatal failure for a film which titles itself as a universal struggle against the neglected nadir of the alphabet.
The set pieces are not remotely gripping and Pitt’s frequent heartfelt struggles to keep in touch with his family are tedious in the extreme, call me a heartless wretch if you will but I didn’t care about his bloody kids and no-one cares about his cartoon stricken worried wife, the adoption of the emotional model of a nuclear family striving for a micro engagement among a macro terror neutralises any sense of the global stakes, it is US insular conditioning which nullifies any sense of a Earthwide humanist engagement. Further alarm klaxons were sounded when the film was awarded a PG13 certificate in North America and a slightly more bloodthirsty 15 certificate here in the UK, but the film is completely sanitized which is absurd when your subject matter is an incremental 2 x 4 x 8 x 16 infectious epidemic, there is not a single drop of blood in the entire picture which is very jarring and completely throws you out of the experience. Yes I’m a horror gorehound and the presence of some amusing exploding skulls and shrieking decapitations would have been welcome, but I’m a realist and I can appreciate that a blockbuster on this scale must avoid these crimson eradications, but the whitewashing of the apparent genocidal stakes at scale pitches the movie as unthreatening, unrealistic, and tepid in the extreme. Speaking of sterilisation any sense of glutenous globalisation or invasive immigration which the current zombie movie nurtures have been also been utterly neutered, and even a visit to Jerusalem to parley with a Mossad general consciously evades any debate of divisive walls or a shared humanity, in fact quite the opposite in a frankly offensive way.*
Current scriptwriting hatchet man Damon Lindelof was drafted in to save the film – a desperate omen if ever there was one – but to be fair as a self-contained unit the third act isn’t a bad piece of filmmaking per se, it at least has a palpable sense of tension and clear direction of narrative goals which the previous acts so desperately lack, even as again the internal credulity of the film world is snapped with an absurd medical solution to the pandemic being offered by Pitt whom has recently added scientific guru to his now ridiculous character arsenal of field doctor, combat specialist and world saving savant. The Swansea set climax at least has the presence of some UK talent to perk up the bloodstream, as one yearns for Peter Calapdi to start assaulting the undead with his particularly devastating calibre of merciless sarcasm, and other UK film fans will be amused to see the genial John Gordon Sinclair pitched earlier in the film as some bad-ass excised extra from Zero Dark Thirty. A final brief montage which one assumes was retained from the original climax gives a tantalising glimpse of what could have been, but ultimately World War Z is not an action film nor is it a gripping geopolitical drama, it’s certainly not a horror film nor blockbusting Barker, so all that remains is the corpse of a picture, fitfully twitching with the potential circulation of the original source material, requiring a definitive head shot to put if out of its misery. Just to mix my undead metaphors this is the final stake in the coffin of the zombie movie, no studio will risk another atrocity on this wallet bruising scale, so we genre fans must retreat to the Walking Dead of the small screen in order to muster a desperate final Alamo style defence of the zombie zeitgeist, you must conserve your ammunition, and pray for a swift death;
*SPOILERS – In the terminology of the film sound attracts the perverted undead, in this sequence it’s the Arabic and thus presumably Palestinian refugees who draw the undead to breach the wall through their prayer and singing once they are accepted into sanctuary, consequently its a very weird reaction for a film which avoids all other political functions….