Bright Lights Film Journal

The Lore of the Running Undead (How World War Z Was Lost and Won)

“The choppy narrative arc of the film ends up matching the new hybrid of fast-running, fast-changing zombie: like its undead, the film moves too fast. The bitten person turns in twelve seconds in World War Z, which feels like about the same amount of time given to a story line before turning to another.”

Zombies do not run. That is where Marc Forster’s adaptation of Max Brooks’ 2006 novel, World War Z, should probably be dismissed. Digressions from the norm of this particular subgenre (to horror) are not usually welcome, and tend to fail in terms of popularity. Like the recent Warm Bodies (Jonathan Levine, 2013), in which we have an emancipated walker who can speak and “feel.” This version misses the entire point of the walker, and falls flat on its narrative face. Essentially, zombies are or should be representations of the people, of the proletariat, as opposed to vampires who stem from the noble blood of Dracula and thus represent the aristocracy. Interestingly, both categories elicit the fascination of the masses as incarnations of what Slavoj Zizek calls “the fundamental mass fantasy” — the return of the dead — but only the zombies incarnate our daily fears. The difference between the two, vampires and zombies, is that, while both fantasies (and therefore never to be fulfilled), the former appears even less likely. Vampires and aristocracy, eternal life, lust and sex, all these are unattainable (unless you’re the 2%). But zombies, death and trauma, sickness and viruses, those seem much more likely (especially if you’re the jaded 98%). So, zombies have been metaphors for the working masses, for the rise in poverty, for everything negative and sickening that lurks deep within ourselves.

The idea that zombies can evolve from their original form is not new. In Land of the Dead (George A. Romero, 2005), zombies actually communicate, protect each other, and seem to have rational thoughts. This type of evolution changes the complexity of the zombie, and renders it more “human,” more acceptable, and therefore less frightening. The zombies chasing Brad Pitt are less frightening because they cannot actually be seen. They are merely a blur across the screen. The zombie purist has certain expectations, and for the most part, World War Z destroys them. Yet somehow the film is turning in a profit when all the initial projections and early reviews had pointed to a massive failure. Why? It must be that the people have recaptured an old fascination with the zombies. But let’s backtrack a little.

To many, Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968) is the grandfather of all subsequent zombie movies. The original zombie from this film (referred to as a “ghoul”) was afraid of fire, and it exhibited traces of a thought process (grabbing tools, rocks etc.). Importantly, Romero’s film offers an explanation for the plague that afflicts humanity: the explosion of a satellite returning from Venus,1 and the radiation that ensued. This explanation is not always offered in the subgenre. Another example that explains the plague comes from the popular British film, 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002): it is chimpanzees infected by a virus2 that cause the rage and eventual destruction of London, and the world. The main character, Jim, wakes up alone in a hospital. The relevance of the satellite in the original Romero comes from a political subtext. The film was made during a time of great political unrest, during the Cold War, and the not so hidden competition between the US and the USSR over the “control” of outer space (Sputnik, anyone?). Partially because of this historical context, the zombie movie during this period could easily be read as an ideological and propagandist commentary that speculated on the connections between the mindless wondering ghouls and the communists.3 The zombies have made a similar ideological return in the recent Cuban movie, Juan de los Muertos (Alejandro Brugués, 2011). In it, the hero takes advantage of the situation and opens up a business for killing zombies. We can see here not only the usual references to communism, but intriguingly, a not so subtle suggestion about the powerful reach of capitalism in a communist environment (in which the former must fail).

The failures of capitalism are also hinted at in Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978) and its remake Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004). In both versions, the survivors gather in a mall, the place where capitalism and one of its components, consumerism, have gone to die. It is ironic that capitalism should come to a stop in a mall in these two versions, and basically die by its own hand. At this point in the apocalyptic world there are no more relations or forces at work to keep capitalism expanding, just consumerism (i.e., the survivors can use the resources of the mall to exhaustion, and then there would be nothing). The subtext here is, of course, wage repression, and the emergence of credit mechanisms for the average American consumer. It is also fitting that the act of eating or consuming should point to the end of capitalism, and of humanity, when it is exactly what happens with the bodies of the living — they are eaten.

Hollywood also takes a turn toward the comedic in an attempt maybe to derail and subvert the true horror that lies behind this apocalyptic fantasy. In Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009), one of the main characters, Columbus, philosophizes, “I used to avoid people like they were zombies before they were zombies. Now that they are all now zombies, I kinda miss people.” His words signal quite clearly that the death of humanity comes from within (i.e., people have always been zombie-like), and that the line between the living and the walking dead is not that wide. The only change that occurs in the current scenario is a physical one, meaning we can recognize the death of humanity more easily. Tallahassee, the tough guy in Zombieland, is not too concerned about the end of the world. Instead, he is on a constant quest for a twinkie, the food that famously never disintegrates, sadly the one thing at the center of humanity that cannot be affected by the zombie plague.

In Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004), the survivors hide away in a pub, which is another place of consumerism and community. The characters do not even notice the zombies for a long time. At the end of this movie, the zombies are turned into slaves essentially, which represents an important departure from the classic Romero film, to which Shaun of the Dead harbors many inter-textual references. Shaun repeats ad nauseam, in the first part of the movie, that “Ed, this is serious,” as his friends still resist the change. This resistance transfers to the audience, and we never transition to pure terror. Instead we remain comfortably settled in at a critical distance.

Something similar occurs when watching World War Z. If we forget for a second all the issues we might have with the fast-moving zombies, the problem is that the film still lacks any narrative force. The much-documented fact that three writers wrote different parts of the film, and that additional funds were required to reshoot the conclusion, all that seems to have seeped through, and the film comes across as patched together awkwardly. However, the choppy narrative arc of the film ends up matching the new hybrid of fast-running, fast-changing zombie: like its undead, the film moves too fast. The bitten person turns in twelve seconds in World War Z, which feels like about the same amount of time given to a story line before turning to another (not to mention that the quick transformation eliminates a core element of the zombie subgenre: the agonizing hours of self-discovery, penance, of fighting between life and death). When the dizzying action finally settles down, as ex-UN agent Gerry (Brad Pitt) and a wounded Israeli soldier (Daniella Kertesz) arrive at a World Health Organization laboratory in Wales, the film also reaches its tension apex. In this episode, Gerry has to retrieve a virus from a wing of the building peppered with dormant, slow-moving zombies. The terror finally comes from slowness, from the imposed silence, from getting back to the roots of a subgenre that relies on an ever sluggish, gawky, and yet steady movement of the zombies. Death comes to us all, but it does so slowly.

However, if we follow the line of interpretation from above concerning the subgenre of the zombie film, we could probably come up with a fitting explanation for the speed of the World War Z zombies: our current society relies more and more on haste, so then naturally, the effects of consumerism and capitalism are accelerated tenfold. In this scenario, isn’t it telling that Gerry very gratifyingly drinks a can of soda then uses the other cans of a soda machine to draw the zombies away?4 Maybe the metaphor of the zombie still holds then. But the best movies of this subgenre are the ones that focus on human nature, on the people still on the side of life. Take AMC’s excellent The Walking Dead and its tremendous success. The audience is involved with each character (granted, TV works quite differently as a medium). In World War Z we hardly see Gerry’s family, his wife, his children; not enough to suffer along with them, or to identify with their pain. Maybe the most compelling character is the Israeli soldier who Gerry saves from turning by cutting off her hand. With her wound she at least carries a typical theme of the zombie film — mutilation (e.g., the characters of The Walking Dead lose various parts of the body throughout the show). The traumatic loss of a limb implies a breaking down of the body, a denaturalization, of becoming something else. So, even the ones still on the side of life are doomed. There are two more typical themes that remain in place in this film: the unknown source of the virus and the quintessential shot of (and through) the eye of a zombie. The Walking Dead is, again, one show that insists on this type of shot on the unmoving alien eye. The very last shot of District 9 (2009) is also one of a changing eye—from human to alien; “alien” as in foreign, and not unlike the retina recognition cameras at the US borders. This observation along with the high walls built by Jerusalem and North Korea’s extreme measure to take everyone’s teeth out in World War Z bring us to one last fitting metaphor for the zombie outbreak: (fear of) mass immigration. And here, World War Z may redeem itself. Shouldn’t it be relevant that the kid Gerry’s family saves, and supposedly will adopt, is Mexican? That Jerusalem’s (Zion!) walls come down figuratively, so that we can see the ridiculousness behind, let’s say, President Bush’s Mexican border “fence”? I’d like to think so, if only to prepare myself for the sequels.

  1. It is from the word “Venus” that we get “venereal,” which would explain further the spreading of the zombie virus/disease: the zombie then becomes a critique of the free love concept of the 60s. []
  2. We can speculate that the virus is akin to the spreading of HIV given its original source from apes. Also importantly, Boyle’s film features fast moving “zombies” (technically, these are not zombies or undead, they’re just infected people). []
  3. A very good, similar example in literature is Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, whose herd of animals is a metaphor for the Fascist movement. []
  4. Quite reminiscent of the famous Coke can that saves the world in Independence Day (1996). []