August Issue 2013

By | Here and Now | Published 11 years ago

For a zombie movie, World War Z has more in common with the 2011 medical thriller Contagion, in which a highly contagious virus threatens the world’s population, than with action horror films such as Resident Evil and The Hills Have Eyes. Directed by Marc Foster, World War Z presents itself as a serious film. There is no gratuitous gore and there are no over-the-top action sequences. Based on a novel of the same name, World War Z features Brad Pitt as Gerry Lane, a former UN investigator who left his job to spend more time with his family. A few minutes into the film, we watch Gerry and his family make small talk while stuck in traffic in their hometown of Philadelphia. But there are signs that something awry is happening. A fire erupts in the near distance and people start running out into the streets from buildings. Gerry and his wife try to keep their two daughters calm while cars start mowing each other down. The hordes of people running around on the streets create a blur on screen, thereby emphasising the state of frenzy. Instead of a musical score, radio static can be heard amidst cries of horror and the screeching of tyres. And then in an aerial shot, we see people in the crowds pouncing on others, much as you would see a beast attacking its prey in the wild. It immediately becomes clear that these are not the sluggish zombies commonly seen in pop culture. Gerry and his family make a narrow escape and not soon after they reach safety, Gerry is asked to return to his job in order to help investigate the cause and possible solution for this epidemic.

Brad Pitt’s performance in the film calls for a special acting award. He has both the star power and gravitas to carry the blockbuster, but he somehow manages to maintain one expression for 90 percent of the film. Be it the abovementioned scene or a later one in which Gerry watches from a distance as a young boy is inexplicably left unharmed by the zombies, we see the same bemused expression on Pitt’s face. He might be playing a crisis specialist onscreen, but it wouldn’t hurt to register some shock or fear in the face of a zombie attack. His wife is played by Mireille Enos, best known for her role as an investigator in the crime show, The Killing. She is a fine actor who conveys both horror and a steely resolve to survive, but unfortunately we see little of her in the film after the opening sequence.

In his quest to better understand how these zombies have come to existence, Gerry travels to Israel, where they have built a massive wall — it’s hard to ignore the political implications of this — to protect themselves from assault. But World War Z is a mainstream Hollywood film after all, and we learn that Israelis and Palestinians have united in their fight against the zombies.

Movies featuring zombies, plagues, alien invasions etc. fall in the post-apocalypse genre, where people who were once in conflict with each other must now unite to protect civilisation from ruin. During the height of the Cold War, Hollywood churned out a lot of alien movies, featuring both good aliens and bad, and film scholars have analysed how those mainstream action films are revealing of the political mood of the time. Similarly, the popularity of zombies (Warm Bodies, Survival of the Dead, 28 Weeks Later and even Go, Goa, Gone) in the past decade or so could also provide a plausible political reading of the world post 9/11.

As with most post-apocalyptic films, World War Z emphasises the importance of people joining hands to survive. And those who refuse to do so are often left for dead: local viewers will be sad to learn that, in the film, Iran and Pakistan wipe each other out in nuclear attacks instead of working together. In a nutshell, World War Z avoids high-adrenalin action and cheap thrills for a more mature take on the zombie genre.

Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.