From Zero to Zombie

I did not come up with that title. I wish I did, but I didn’t. It’s from a review I read of World War Z that said something along the lines of “things go from zero to zombie in about five minutes.”

It’s a very accurate assessment of the opening few minutes of the film. The fit hits the shan (if you know what I mean) in about five minutes flat. Ominous opening credits, then we meet Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family (wife and two daughters), and then it’s zombie invasion time.

It is no secret that World War Z had a troubled production history. In many ways I’m amazed it even got made. There were many script rewrites and reshoots, the film was delayed several times and the budget, originally around $125 million, ended up ballooning to around $200 million. There is no question that World War Z is the most expensive zombie movie ever made.

This interests me because a big-budget film adaptation of Max (son of Mel) Brooks’ 2006 novel wasn’t exactly a sure thing to begin with.

WorldWarZ book cover

I love this book. I’ve read my fair share of zombie fiction, and World War Z is probably my favorite zombie novel. The main challenge of adapting it into film is its structure. As you can see from the subtitle “An Oral History of the Zombie War”, Brooks’ approach to telling the story is somewhat unconventional.

Instead of a straightforward, linear narrative, Brooks frames the novel from the point of view of an agent of the UN Postwar Commission, who is conducting a series of postwar interviews with survivors from around the world, who recount their often-harrowing encounters with the undead. Brooks paints a frighteningly convincing portrait of mankind on the brink of extinction, and he grounds the story in reality in a way many zombie stories don’t. For example, one former soldier tells how he survived the catastrophic Battle of Yonkers, and how the military’s high-tech weapons and tactics proved useless against the undead (wounding them was ineffective, various heat-seeking technologies were useless because zombies have no body heat, and zombies have no self-preservation instincts and don’t care when their fellow zombies get killed).

Brooks portrays the zombies as a truly unique enemy, and in so doing provides a vivid depiction of what an actual, global zombie pandemic would really be like. The personalities of the book’s many different narrators really shine through, some are sarcastic or bitter, others are quieter and more reserved. It really gives the book a lot of variety and sets it apart from myriad other tales of zombie apocalypse.

The movie, on the other hand, is a far more conventional one-man-saves-the-world kind of thing.

 WORLD-WAR-Z-Poster brad pitt

This doesn’t really surprise me, since the novel in its original format would be pretty close to being unfilmable. I mean, I suppose it would be possible, but telling the story in film the way Brooks does on the page would be more suited to a TV series where you can take the time to really hash out each individual story. In two-hour film format, that would be extremely difficult to achieve.

Apparently realizing this, the makers of the movie opted for the more accessible route of ONE MAN SAVES THE WORLD. It’s an understandable decision, but a little risky.

I really want to emphasize how amazed I am that this movie even got made. Zombie fans are something of a niche audience, and some of the best zombie movies ever made were made outside of Hollywood (George A. Romero’s first couple zombie flicks were mostly independently financed). Although I suppose that the success of The Walking Dead TV series has proved that there is a wider audience out there for the good old brain-munchers, but a big-budget summer blockbuster zombie film is definitely a risky proposition.

It’s even riskier when you consider how changing the book around as much as the movie does risks alienating fans of the book, who you have to figure will represent a pretty decent percentage of the target audience. And then you make the film PG-13 instead of R, which is understandable from a studio perspective (PG-13 ratings are far more commercially viable), but risks further alienating the target audience, who (reasonably) expect their zombies to be pretty R-rated (I mean, zombies DO eat people).

So what you’ve got with the film version of World War Z is a big-budget film adaptation of a book that strays heavily from its source material, that had a somewhat niche audience to begin with, and that also dumbs down the violence inherent to the subject matter (the book was frequently pretty graphic, as is customary to zombie stories).

All of this combines to make World War Z the movie a pretty tough sell in this day and age, which is why I am still a little flabbergasted that this movie exists.

Perhaps even more perplexing are the facts that the movie made $66 million its opening weekend (the best opening weekend gross of Brad Pitt’s career) and is actually pretty good.

It’s not perfect, mind you. The plot is a bit slapdash (the movie’s four credited screenwriters didn’t give it much of a coherent plot) and I kind of wished it had been more violent but it was still an entertaining and exciting film.

Is it weird that I wished for more violence? The action scenes in the film are intense and well-executed, but the film overall is almost entirely bloodless. It’s telling that the most expensive zombie movie ever made is also probably the tamest in terms of gore. There’s a scene near the end of the film where Pitt’s character is looking through a zombie-infested World Health Organization building, and the walls are squeaky-clean. I couldn’t help but think that in just about any other zombie movie, the walls would have been drenched in blood.

In an odd way, I kind of wished they were. Is that weird? I think that’s a little weird. Help me out here zombie fans, am I alone in hoping that the eventual Blu-Ray release of the movie will feature a more violent extended cut?

But like I said, it’s still an entertaining movie. Brad Pitt is likable and endearing in the lead role. I found him easy to root for, and the appealing performance of the actress who played his wife (Mireille Enos of AMC’s TV series “The Killing”) even made me care about his family.

I even liked the zombies pretty well, despite the lack of gore dripping from their eye sockets and the fact that these are FAST zombies instead of the more traditional slow, shambling, Romero-esque flesheaters of Brooks’ novel.

The film’s signature visual, the ZomPile (as I am calling it) also looked pretty cool.

 WorldWarZ-ZombiewallTrailerHelifull5

I thought it looked kind of hokey in the trailers, but for whatever reason it looked better to me in the finished film than it did in the trailers. It’s a weird portrayal of zombies but it’s certainly unique. I’m pretty sure the brain-chompers have never done anything like that in a movie before.

Again, the movie is very flawed. The plot feels pasted together and to me it didn’t have the same sense of scope as Brooks’ novel did. The origin of the zombie virus is never really explained and the film also never really bothers to explain why Brad Pitt’s character is so important to begin with.

But it is well-made and certainly never boring. I find it hard to hate a movie that launches into full-on zombie mayhem in about five minutes flat, and to its credit the movie does have a LOT of freaking zombies (see above photo). As a movie it was good fun. If you’re a fan of Brooks’ novel you should still check it out. It’s worth seeing for zombie fans and Max Brooks fans, as long as you don’t go into it expecting a completely faithful adaptation of the book. I’m amazed and actually pretty happy that it got made.

Here’s hoping for that unrated Blu-Ray.

 WorldWarZ-Poster

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

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