Monday, July 15, 2013

Review: World War Z, the Book and the Movie

In which Sam rants about World War Z (the movie), raves about World War Z (the book), and speculates on a zombie film built entirely around Simon & Garfunkel songs.


Is the current zombie zeitgeist (am I using that word correctly? It's unlikely) strictly a young adult phenomenon? Certainly not. Still, let’s not forget that it’s college students who play the Humans vs. Zombies role-playing game, not senior citizens (although wait a minute...imagine that! Wouldn’t it be flawless?

To be honest, we're halfway there.
But my guess is that zombies’ strong appeal to the coveted 18-24 male demographic – and the success of the book – brought World War Z to the big screen this summer.

Max Brooks’s series of oral accounts from the zombie apocalypse came out in 2006 was a wild, funky, visceral ride, told entirely in first-person accounts from a variety of people who survived World War Z. What was most gripping to me was that you were given the story in edges and pieces, and you combed each story for the shape and size of the Great Panic that followed the initial outbreak, reeling from the all-too-realistic waves of death and disease that had nothing to do with zombie bites and everything to do with the breakdown of society. Most chilling to me were the millions of deaths from starvation and winter in North America, and the detached, toneless delivery of the story from the young woman who survived the holocaust.

This was the first zombie book that legitimately frightened me. There was nothing supernatural or unbelievable (other than the fact that zombies existed). This left me late at night with thoughts like that’s just how it would happen and maybe it already has happened chasing each other around my head, while I jumped at the soft sounds of leaves and branches scraping the window.  No less plausible were the reactions of nations and individuals to the outbreak, familiar and heartbreaking as explosive echoes of reality. Yet few of these stories survive the transition to the screen – instead, the movie is an utterly different animal.

A sexy beast, to be precise. 
The film instead focuses on Gerry Lane, our protagonist and plot-driver who crashes around the world searching for the source of the zombie outbreak. I was delighted for the old-school jump scares and throwback thriller feel, but it was a completely different story and overall, a weaker one. This is in no small part due to the change from slow, shuffling zombies in the book to fast zombies in the film: visually, the swap makes sense. It’s much less scary at surface to be able to walk faster than your pursuers, and as reviewers pointed out, the speed and strength of zombies can be truly terrifying, which was why 28 Days Later was so great.

But the book built its tension and overwhelming feeling of fear, dread, and doom from swarms upon swarms of slow-moving zombies. Even if you could outrun them, it didn’t matter – they were everywhere, all the time, always moving towards you, and always drawn to you. I would have loved to see a film that conveyed that claustrophobic chill.


The most disappointing change, in my opinion, was the “cure” Gerry Lane discovers in the film. Recall that the book is just a series of oral accounts cataloguing the rapid downfall of society after the outbreak, and its slow ascent back through hard work and lots of accurate head shots (the only way to kill a zombie). The climax of the book features some ruthless maneuvers by what remains of the powers that be, but the resultant victories are hard-won.

In contrast, by observing two (TWO) people – a dangerously thin boy and a stumbling old man – who are ignored by the zombie hordes, Lane concludes that “zombies ignore terminally ill people.” Now, all troops have to do is inject themselves with a deadly disease in order to avoid zombie attack, and can simply follow up with an antidote to ensure no one actually dies of Ebola.

Wait a minute.

If that conclusion gives you pause, you’re not alone. What about, say, a hospice? Which, by definition, is full of terminally ill people? A nursing home, full of the elderly? Didn’t anyone notice that the zombies didn’t attack any of those places?[1] 

"Yes...Yes, just as we'd planned it."
This is not to mention all the problems with subjecting your body to terminal illnesses for short periods of time, presumably more than once (since troops can’t carry the disease too long, or they’ll die, so they’ll have to do it again, right?) I’m not a doctor or a biologist, but repeated exposure to a disease might build tolerance. Maybe? This isn’t a medical journal, and I don’t have citations. But I certainly still have questions!

Another question: how ill is terminally ill? How do the zombies decide? Will some zombies attack a very ill person who is not terminally ill, but other zombies will look for someone a little more spry? 

The point is, the movie left me with more questions than answers. I don’t always mind that – the book left questions too. But the kinds of questions I had after reading Max Brooks’ take on the zombie apocalypse – how did we let this happen? What factors let the outbreak become a pandemic? Why did some nations succeed? Would I react like some of these people did? – were questions that made me want to read World War Z again. And I will. As soon as I get my copy back from the friend I lent it to. You know who you are!

In conclusion, if I had directed World War Z, the opening scene would have still unfolded downtown in the early morning, still with the panic and screaming, but instead with Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” playing in the background, as a swarm of moaning zombies slowly – very slowly – grew. And grew.


[1] Full credit for this line of thought to Kenny, who went to see the movie with me, was very tolerant of my hysterical reactions to what was happening on-screen, and also was the first to point out the holes in the plot. :)

1 comment:

  1. I have to read this book now. Also for some reason The Only Living Boy in New York made me think of the opening (I think it's the opening?) scene if Vanilla Sky where he's running around and there is no one anywhere. No idea why, since actually it's...Vanilla Sky...Man I get sidetracked easily.

    Anyway the format of the book is what really sounds interesting to me (besides the know zombies and whatnot). Maybe I'll buy this for my friend for his birthday..and sort of read it first...


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