As zombie movies go, World War Z is one of the best. “Big deal,” you might respond. “I don’t like zombie movies anyway.” Well, neither do I. But World War Z is the first blockbuster of the season that is truly worth seeing, and that’s because it isn’t really a zombie movie. It’s an exciting, suspenseful action film; a tense, intelligent sci-fi thriller; and a tender, emotional family story that just happens to be swarming with gnashing, growling, undead zombies.
In this film a rabies-like virus or toxin has suddenly developed and is being spread through saliva-to-bloodstream contact. If you are bitten by an infected person, you are immediately transformed into a rabid, howling, teeth-gnashing, pack-swarming zombie. And there is no three-week incubation with this virus; people are transformed in twelve seconds. One moment our hero is being aided by another sympathetic character; the next moment he is running for his life from the same character. This creates ever-changing rushes of emotion for the audience.
The film begins with our hero, Gerry (Brad Pitt) driving with his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and their two daughters (Sterling Jerins, Abigail Hargrove) on what seems to be an ordinary day. Gradually they notice anomalies: too many helicopters are in the air; traffic has come to a standstill; emergency vehicles are ramming their way through traffic; and people are running — running for their lives. Gerry and his family start running too. Anyone who lived in New York on 9/11 or has seen films of that day (and that includes everyone on the planet) can understand the terror of knowing something is up, but not knowing what it is.
Inner-city residents have already learned this truth: police don’t prevent crime, they just clean up after it. So you’d better have a gun to protect yourself.
What makes this film so good is that it doesn’t rely on the blood and gore of a standard zombie film to titillate the audience. In fact, we don’t see much of that at all — the gore remains discreetly at a distance, in the shadows. We don’t need to see it to know it’s there. In fact, the acting of the zombified humans is one of the most powerful parts of the film, because we can still see the humanness that was once theirs. Michael Jenn is especially good as the zombie who threatens Gerry inside a lab vault, not with vicious physical attacks but with an eerie quiet, his teeth barely chattering as he sniffs the air and listens for evidence of Gerry’s location.
The film subtly encourages us to focus, not on gore, but on the family relationships of the characters and to think about what we would do in a disaster, how we would react, and how those around us would react.
First, of course, is the looting. Everyone needs supplies, so how do you decide who gets food, who gets medicine, who gets to be evacuated to an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean and who has to go to a landlocked refugee camp? Money is meaningless, but Gerry has a rifle. That gets him the inhalers his asthmatic daughter needs. It also allows him to protect his wife from would-be attackers (the pre-zombie kind). Cops run into the fray, but they have no intention of keeping the peace — they too are just looking for supplies. Inner-city residents have already learned this truth: police don’t prevent crime, they just clean up after it. So you’d better have a gun to protect yourself.
The film also asks us to think about the nature of epidemics. Most viruses send people to bed, not out into the streets like these zombies. But people infected by the flu or the plague or smallpox can be just as deadly, infecting their care-givers, their friends, their family. One man whom Gerry meets tells him, “My wife and my son were running away. A zombie caught her and then she . . .” In twelve seconds she was a carrier, and the nearest person to her was the son she was trying to protect. I know one sweet, well-meaning family who decided not to have their children vaccinated for fear of autism. Somehow their older children got whooping cough and brought it home to their six-week-old brother, who died in less than a week. Viruses do not have to turn people into marauding zombies to make them deadly. And metaphorically, of course, the virus of a bad philosophy can infect whole communities and generations of people.
The film’s treatment of the kind of issues I’ve mentioned gives it a subtlety and an intellectuality that fast-paced thrillers seldom have. But it is a fast-paced thriller, one that is entertaining as well as insightful.
As a former investigator for the UN, Gerry has access to a helicopter that can whisk his family to the safety of the aircraft carrier. There a UN group is figuring out how to stop the virus. A crew must be sent to “ground zero,” the place where the virus was first seen, and they need Gerry to protect the virologist. But like John Russell (Paul Newman) in Hombre (1967), he feels no altruistic responsibility to risk his life to save the community, even though he possesses the best skills for success. “I can’t help you,” he tells the UN commander, Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena). “I can’t leave my family.” “Then you can’t have a bunk on this ship,” Thierry replies.
Again, we are forced to consider the question of how to distribute scarce goods when money has become meaningless. Gerry reluctantly agrees to lead the team, not to save the world, but to protect his own family. Productivity and protection become the media of exchange when paper money no longer matters. One can’t help applying this thought to the reversal of priorities in our current economic situation, in which non-producing citizens are given food, shelter, and medical care at the expense of the productive element of society.
The film’s metaphorical power becomes abundantly clear in a vivid scene in which the zombies form a Masada-like ramp by climbing on top of each either to scale the wall that has been built around Jerusalem to keep the zombies at bay. Ants will do this too, swarming en masse and even crushing those beneath them in order to gain access to food.
This representation of the baser side of animal nature, in contrast to the nobility and intelligence of humans, is rather refreshing for a Hollywood movie. The credits begin with images of birds flocking, ants swarming, and wolves baring their teeth, reminding us that the animal kingdom isn’t as benign as we lately have been led to believe. Humans are good after all! In this story, we can root for our heroes as they struggle to thwart nature’s latest mutation, instead of flagellating ourselves with guilt for being the destroyers of all things good. The virologist who volunteers to find a cure for the diseasedeclares, “Mother Nature is a serial killer. And like a serial killer, she wants to get caught.”
Luckily for us, we humans have the right kind of brains for catching her.