Zombies - they’re the latest craze. They seem to be everywhere. Happily, they seem to have replaced the "angst ridden teenage vampire" fad that was around a couple of years ago. (As far as my thoughts on that fad go - well, it worked to perfection on Buffy The Vampire Slayer and it’s spin-off Angel. Everything else merely cashed in. I saw the first Twilight and a bit of the second before realising that it had possibly the most unappealing ensemble cast ever put together for a film. I saw a handful of Vampire Diaries episodes before realising that having watched five or six, the story really hadn’t progressed from the first few minutes of the sereis pilot.Overall, I guess I realised I just wasn’t a teenage girl.)
Okay, I’m drifting off point as usual...
I like zombie movies, but there’s a kind of flaw in them. They’ve been pretty much all the same since George Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead, which really kicked off the genre.
No? Okay, let’s look at zombie movies pre-Night. 1932 gave us White Zombie, with Bela Lugosi as Murder Legendre who controlled Haitian zombies he has risen from the dead to do his bidding. There was I Walked With a Zombie (1943), another West Indies plantation set pot-boiler involving voodoo, and there was Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies (1966) which brought the voodoo cult to a tin mine in Cornwall. When 1968 rolled around and Romero raised his zombies, the whole genre changed. With a few... a VERY small few exceptions, all zombie movies would from then on be the result of a global apocalypse that raised the dead not by voodoo, but by some unknown cosmic means of the planet travelling through the wake of an asteroid or the release of some chemical gas into the air. The dead rise, those still living are trying to stay, well.... still living.
So - that’s problem number one. Relentless repetition.
Problem number 2 is that you can’t really do much with zombies to make them interesting. The shuffle around, grunting. And they eat. That, really is it. Sadly, they’re a plot device to tell a story of survival rather than actually the plot itself. Night of the Living Dead isn’t really about zombies - it’s about the dynamic between the survivors on the farmhouse. Dawn of the Dead, inarguably the best of the Romero zombie movies isn’t about zombies - it’s about survivors in a shopping mall. The best that can be done with this limited story line is to try and do something different, which director Sean Cain did admirably in Silent Night, Zombie Night - set at Christmas.
Problem number 3 is that they’re so damn slow. Really. Slow. You want to escape from a zombie? Walk at a brisk pace. The classic Mummy movies have the same problem. I love the trappings of the old movies, the tana leaves, the bandage covered figure relentlessly making his way through the night, usually to kidnap the leading lady on the orders of a fez wearing bad guy. But if you start jogging, poor Kharis hasn’t a chance. (Incidentally - best Mummy disposal EVER was in The Monster Squad, where an arrow shot through the Mummy’s bandage as he was dragged behind a pickup truck caused him to simply unravel. Genius.)
These problems don’t bode well for a high profile release at the height of the summer blockbuster season. In fact, it COULD be box office suicide.
Except it wasn’t.
I have no idea how closely World War Z adheres to it’s source novels, but on screen it defies the normal conventions and shortcomings of the average tried, trusted and maybe a little threadbare zombie movie and becomes something satisfyingly different, while retaining the usual trappings of the genre.
Our first encounter with the zombies is during the morning rush hour in downtown Philadelphia as Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family go about their normal business, are caught up in traffic and then the explosive mayhem lets loose. The zombies aren’t the standard type, these are much faster moving and are feral. They’ve succumbed to a global pandemic that raises the dead and is transmitted by bite. By the way, Lane is a retired UN employee who seems to have done some work in the less friendly areas of the globe and as the pandemic spreads - they need him back.
So, these aren’t your standard zombies by any means. Oh, they’re dead all right, but rather than be a cannibalistic slow moving horde, these are fast and as I said, wild and animalistic. I found this to be more disturbing visually, as in the Philly scenes the zombies attacking the living are choreographed a lot like a pride of lions attacking some gazelle on a nature film. Actually, if you cross that visual with CNN footage of crowds fleeing a terrorist attack, you’ll get a better feeling of what I mean, and how well that scene works in a post 9-11 and Boston marathon world. It eerily catches the panic and the primal urge to escape something that you understand nothing of - except it wants to kill you, because it’s seen you. I’ve seen films with fast moving zombies before, but these were a lot more impressive than those in 28 Days Later. This is a breed of zombie that will repeatedly heat butt the windshield of your car, damaging itself in the process, just in order to bite and infect you, before moving on to the next target it has spotted.
The most memorable crowd scenes in the film were the multiple hundreds of zombies actually swarming and climbing over each other, insect-like in a huge human pyramid to achieve their goal, be it to scale a wall - or attack a helicopter.
Lane’s mission is to basically traverse the globe in search of a cure, so it becomes an questing adventure film rather than a simple case of a bunch of people trying to stay alive, and is really the shot in the arm the film needs to elevate it beyond the normal zombie fare. I mean, what’s the point in spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a zombie movie when audiences have the frankly awesome Walking Dead series fed into their TVs at home - right? Well, World War Z is most definitely worth the effort to leave your cosy armchair and enjoy a different kind of zombie movie that sheds many of the standard conventions of the genre.
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