There is a lot to be looking forward to this summer season regardless of the sect of nerdom you affiliate yourself with — ‘Man of Steel’, ‘The Wolverine’, ‘Iron Man 3′, ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’, ‘Kick-Ass 2′, ‘Pacific Rim’, and so on — but one film appeals to me on levels the others just don’t, and that’s ‘World War Z’.
I’ve been a zombie fan for as long as I can remember. I may have been watching ‘All Dogs Go To Heaven’ and ‘Fievel Goes West’ during the daytime hours as a child, but at night, I was moonlighting Tom Savini’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’ remake and Brian Yuzna’s ‘Return of the Living Dead III’.
We’ve entered a golden age of zombie media. It’s almost an oversaturation of the horde, from the small screen (‘Walking Dead’) to romantic comedies (‘Warm Bodies’). And now, in ‘World War Z’, an adaptation of the novel from Max Brooks, we have a zombie-centric summer blockbuster starring Brad Pitt. It’s surreal; 10-15 years ago, it would have been a bad joke. But here we are.
The trope goes that “the book is better” when it comes to just about any adaptation. That’s subjective depending on which medium you’re favouring. The reality is: it’s nearly impossible to replicate every page of even a 300 page novel in a film with a reasonable runtime. You can pad that bad boy to 3 1/2 hours and you’re still going to miss an expositive chapter or two. Sure, it can be frustrating when you’re sitting in a film and parts from the book are exempted or it just goes in an entirely different direction all together. We’ve all heard it: “That didn’t happen in the book!” some over excited fan bellows as the popcorn flies out of their mouth onto the heads of the people in front of them.
But if there was ever an example of a book that truly needs to be adapted in the truest sense of the word, it’s ‘World War Z’. The trailers finally got to me, the hype of the book’s fans finally convinced me — I read it. And you would have to be one deluded reader to tell me that it would be a good thing for this book to be page-for-page, shot-for-shot the same in film form. It would be an absolute clusterfuck, with more introductions, climaxes and resolutions than an audience could handle. Like this character? Well, he’s dead. Now off to India! That’s the flow of the book.
For those who haven’t read it, the book’s basically a collection of short stories all set within the same universe. Some overlay well, some veer off in their own direction, but they all build an overarching narrative of a war against the undead that nearly drove all of humanity to the point of extinction.
The International Angle…
The book’s narrator is an ever-travelling gentleman associated with the United Nations. He is a quiet voice merely working as a guide. You don’t unlock pieces of his past while reading, you don’t build up to some grand revelation of his — he’s simply a tool. So, it’s not a main character that’s at the heart of ‘World War Z’, it’s the international angle: the varying ways each country deals with the infection.
Judging by the trailers, the film is not what I once feared: another US-centric zombie film with the occasional mention of foreign countries. Instead of being Mr. Hands-Off Interviewer, Pitt’s character in the film, expectedly, is a more hands-on representative of the UN. The trailers alone take us from The United States…
… to Israel.
And the film’s IMDB cast list is absolutely littered with Russian characters, not to mention the reported filming locations of Glasgow, Scotland and Budapest. It may not encompass the world the way the book did — North Korea barricading themselves in (what’s new?), Cuba becoming a democracy, India’s legendary General Raj-Singh, China nabbing some submarines — but it’s making an effort.
Likely Key Storylines…
There are two huge storylines that the film seems content to carry over from the book:
1) Most obviously, the whole bit about Israel being the only country in the world to take the zombie invasion seriously at the onset. They go as far to construct a modern-day Great Wall of China, which is dogpiled upon in the trailer.
2) This one might be a stretch, but all of those Russian names have me riled up. When I see allusions to Russia regarding ‘World War Z’, I can’t help but think of The Decimation, which sees Russia employing strict punishment on members of their military who dare to rebel. An awesome quote from one of the leaders addressing a gathering of troops:
“You spoiled children think democracy is a God-given right. You expect it, you demand it! Well, now you’re going to get your chance to practice it.”
At which point troops are separated into groups of ten. Amongst each other, they must decide which of them is to be executed, then perform the execution themselves. It’s gritty, nasty stuff that embodies a strong part of zombie media: the worst coming out in humanity in the face of distress.
Note: I would mention “The Great Panic” from the book, a breakdown of the socioeconomic status of the world as a whole, but I view it as a given. The economic aspect may not be emphasized in the film, but as the trailer shows, there will be plenty of running and screaming… and probably a little dip of faith in the government (at least initially until the “USA!” chants are cued).
Musts for the film…
There are a lot of unique things about the book that make it work, some things being so unique that I, as a fan, would personally be bothered by if they didn’t make the film.
1) The Battle of Yonkers — Boasting as much military might as they could, from tanks to aircraft bombers, the US took a stand against the undead in a suburb of New York City. It was meant to be a display of power, thousands of soldiers picking apart millions of zombies in assembly line fashion… but it didn’t go that way. As long as there was a working mind, it didn’t matter how many limbs the bombs and bullets tore through, the dead kept coming, taking several thousand soldiers with them. What was meant to be uplifting turned into something completely disheartening. It’s a battle that sells zombies as a threat. It answers the question, “Why doesn’t the military just bomb them?” They did, and the numbers they went up against were too great, while their aim too imprecise. Leaving out Yonkers in a ‘World War Z’ film is like leaving out The Battle of Helm’s Deep from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ or The Battle of Hogwarts from ‘Harry Potter’.
2) Redeker Plan — Paul Redeker, a strategist living in South Africa was a man renown and reviled for his plans. Expecting a vengeful death when the zombie outbreak hit, he was instead enlisted by the South African government to concoct a plan to deal with the undead. He did, and it was just as nasty and utilitarian as expected: citizens with use would be relocated to heavily fortified government facilities; those who didn’t make the cut would be used as bait to distract the hordes from the facilities. Those selected as bait would remain in heavily infected areas, being resupplied on occasion so that their ability to draw away from the facilities didn’t fade. Various governments all over the world began to implement this plan in one way or another. The plan harkens back to the old “worst of us” adage. It’s a good source of drama and action outside of the obvious threat of the dead rising.
3) Zombies having a presence underwater — The only film that comes to mind in which zombies were able to navigate large bodies of water is George A. Romero’s ‘Land of the Dead’. I’m sure there are others, but that’s the one I think of. That’s to say, the idea of the undead ruling the water or even being a minor threat is not something that has had the time to become cliche’. The oceans are vast, so it’s not like zombies all of a sudden become solely aquatic in ‘World War Z’ — they mainly inhabit the land, still — but they don’t allow for water to become a safe haven for humans. They pull themselves aboard ships, wash up on islands, even stand around naked (because their clothes have disintegrated) waiting for submarines to pass by. They may have eaten a few whales, too.
4) Terminology — I’ve been calling the undead of ‘World War Z’ a whole slew of long-established names throughout this article. The reason being: I want to use terms everyone’s familiar with. In the book however, like any good piece of zombie media that wants to stand out on its own, it has its own terminology for the undead — they call them Zacks (which hit me the best for some reason), Z’s (short for the obvious), and G’s (short for ghouls). Whatever the movie does, just don’t call them Walkers.
I’m a reasonable man. As I said above, books and film are two very different things. Expect cuts, expect reimagining — it is an adaptation, after all. Nonetheless, here are a few things from the book that I would love to see at least briefly glossed over in the film:
1) Ks (canines) — I was thinking about tossing this one in my must list — after all, the chapter in the book detailing the extensive training the military dogs endured, their deep connection with their trainers, and their multiple uses (scouting, detecting, etc) was one of, if not, my favorite — but in film form, I see them better fitted as a side. Have them detect a few carrying the infection, have them take down a Zack or two (without biting mind you, because the infection is detrimental to their system) and I’ll be content.
2) Quislings — Some people just can’t cope with the undead walking the Earth. They resort to a common psychology of wanting to embrace the enemy, to join them. These people, called “quislings”, are in their minds, zombies. They have all of the characteristics of zombies, and they don’t hold back from trying to take a bite out of someone. They are however, not infected… and the real Zacks know it. They will rip these quislings apart like they would anyone else; the difference being that the quislings don’t resist. Film wise, I wouldn’t be surprised if these guys didn’t make the cut. It might just look ridiculous, particularly given that the zombies in the film move quickly like a swarm of bees.
3) Phalanx — Contributing to The Great Panic, one cheeky bugger, Breckenridge Scott gets the bright idea to falsify a cure, taking advantage of the confusion as to whether the infection was a form of rabies (as it was initially dubbed “African Rabies”) or the old “When there’s no more room in hell…” kind of thing. Scott’s vaccine — nothing more than a cure for rabies — gets approved because it technically does what it says it does: cures rabies. Phalanx has a two-pronged effect: it stimulates the US economy while it’s believed to be a proper vaccine, but it causes hysteria once it’s proven to be ineffective. I could see some form of Phalanx being introduced in the film toward the middle — it could serve as a desperate attempt to maintain order.
I couldn’t help but notice the production made a stop in the UK (Scotland) and while it’s not the location I was hoping for, it’s close enough to get me hopeful. One of the standout chapters in the novel for me revolves around who I presume to be its universe’s Queen of the United Kingdom making an adamant stand alongside her people in Windsor Castle. An incredible quote that made me want to grab a claymore and start hacking up corpses talks about the place of the Queen in tumultuous times:
“They were viewed very much like castles, I suppose: as crumbling, obsolete relics, with no real modern function other than as tourist attractions. But when the skies darkened and the nation called, both reawaken to the meaning of their existence. One shielded our bodies, the other, our souls.”
While I don’t expect Brad Pitt to make a stop on the set of ‘Game of Thrones’, I would explode in my seat if some semblance of the scene described above took place.
Trimming the Fat…
The enjoyment of each story in ‘World War Z’ is subjective; however, there are some that are so self contained that they would mess up the momentum of a focused narrative. Look over the following from an objective point of view and tell me these scenarios really need to be incorporated into the movie:
- Even in the face of animated decaying flesh, celebrities need the spotlight. A gaggle of them are televised and live-streamed for the world to see as they ride things out in a mansion. Envying and ready to kill for the supplies they so callously flaunted, regular people (and minor D-listers) start showing up. A bloody battle ensues.
- A man suffers from blindness, goes out into the woods with nothing but a shovel. He develops mad skills with said shovel, then starts up a fire-arm free division in Japan to combat the undead.
- Female member of the air force crash lands in the middle of a swamp. Losing hope and sanity, she’s guided via radio by another woman to safety. This woman eerily possesses a lot of the same knowledge of the crash survivor. It’s heavily implied that the two are one in the same.
- Astronauts suffer horrible consequences of being in space for too long. Their reason for being up there is to keep as many integral satellites in orbit by maintaining fuel levels.
I’ll admit: when I saw the first teaser for the teaser trailer (oh, the time we live in) for the film, I was taken aback. The zombies look like a wave. My first thought was that old animated show, ‘Reboot’; others asked, “Where’s the surf music?” It’s a jarring depiction of the undead, to say the least, since it deviates so far from what we collectively as zombie fans are used to.
But the more I see and the closer we get to the release date, the more I look at these zombies as a stroke of genius. What would you have preferred… ‘The Walking Dead: The Movie’? This depiction of zombies gives ‘World War Z’ its own identity. In the trailers, there are clearly people in costume playing zombies, and there have been set photos showing others, so it’s not like we’re getting pure CGI. This is world war against zombies — expect some CGI fluff, for the love of God. And if that fluff happens to stupefy you with their ability to overturn buses and scale Israel, so be it. Or should Marvel’s films go all organic, too?
I like the book. It’s great. What it isn’t is infallible. If I were to look at the film thus far and see a total disregard for its subject material, I might be able to get on board with all of the hate. But what I see are a lot of components coming together to comprise a package that makes sense for what it is.
I can’t speak for the overall quality of the film — I haven’t seen it — but I’ve been following it long enough that I’m of the opinion we’re not getting a $180 million ‘Super Mario Bros.’ level train wreck. I think it’s poised to be a new member of my Blu-Ray collection, actually.
Agree, disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or let’s take it to Twitter.