Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Politics Of: World War Z

Glen Beck Describes Obama Voters Trying To Reach A Helicopter
The Omnivore has covered zombies before but now that World War Z is in the theaters let's take a look at the .357 magnum-opus of zombie movies! The first part will be review (and relatively spoiler free). The second part looks at the political structure of the film and will contain spoilers.

If you read the second part without seeing the movie and are spoiled you may experience a desperate need to spoil the film for others. They, thus spoiled, will move as fast as they can to tell still more people--and soon everyone across the globe may be spoiled before the summer is over.

You have been warned.

World War Z
Max Brooks (yes, son of Mel) wrote the 2006 novel about a world in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. The book was told in the style of World War II oral histories with each chapter being an interview with a survivor that illustrated some part of the larger, global scale, story. The novel, World War Z, gave us a sweeping look across various nations and geographies--how their individual governments and leaders dealt with the threat.

The book was well received and, when Hollywood got involved there was a bidding war between Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment studios and Leonardo DiCaprio's Appian Way. Pitt won and set about making the biggest zombie movie of all time.

The production was plagued with difficulties. Allegedly, the crew, somewhat unused to film-making on the scale of WWZ, lost a day of shooting due to not having catering facilities for 150 extras. For shooting in Budapest they flew in 85 weapons which, in contradiction of law, were live and not disabled. Criminal charges were filed--but eventually dropped--when no one could figure out (due to the blizzard / crossfire of legal entities in play) who would be at fault.

Most notably, though, when the nearly finished film's 3rd act was shown around it was deemed a disaster. The decision was made to re-shoot the end for (allegedly) 30-40 million.

At this point fans of the book had all but given up on it and Ain't It Cool News was astonished that, apparently, Pitt had made a massive, epic zombie movie ... without any blood or gore. They said AMC's The Walking Dead had more gore in it than WWZ. If the movie wasn't going to be anything like the book--and it lacked blood ... what was left?

What was left turns out to be pretty damn good. Cinematically World War Z gives us a grand-scale, heart-stopping end of the world. From a sleepy beginning that establishes Brad Pitt as a committed family man who has given up his UN job (which we are told, is not super-ninja assassin, but actually UN inspector) to make pancakes for his adorable family to the epic opening sequence in Philadelphia (actually Glasgow with all the storefronts re-done for tax-code reasons)--to the frantic middle where Pitt is dispatched to uncover the source of the zombie infestation with his family on the line (if he can't deliver they'll be thrown off the ships)--it is a tense, convincing, kinetic movie.

Pitt may have left a whole lot of money on the cutting-room floor but he got good value for what's on screen. We have moved from an era of "slow shambling zombies" to fast, manic, cannibal zombies and these new guys are scary. They sprint like cheetahs running down a kill and attack en mass, crawling and clawing over each other for fresh meat.

World War Z does its best to be smart. Apparently Pitt referenced The Bourne Identity as a movie he wanted to emulate with its focus on over-seas destinations and global action. I'll add to that the intelligence its resourceful hero portrays. Periodically we see Brad Pitt doing things without it being exactly clear why--and then later it turns out he was thinking clearly after all. I like that.

World War Z shows a very few frayed ends for a movie that was put together the way it was. We hear, I believe, that some percentage of bite victims are immune: that never comes up again (nor does it seem to be true). Everyone treats the zombies like a virus--which, you know, maybe it is--but they clearly keep moving even if you destroy their lungs and hearts. It's also clearly paranormal and no one seems to remark much on that.

Best if all, though, World War Z moves into what may be fairly new territory. Generally zombie movies have the following structure:

  1. Establish main character.
  2. The zombie apocalypse begins! Horror!
  3. Find other survivors--hole up.
  4. Hunker down, turn on each other / go shopping.
  5. Defenses fail / food runs out: desperate run for safety.
  6. Everyone dies / happy ending
In this case, when we get to #3, rather than holing up, Pitt is dispatched to find the source and (maybe) a cure. It avoids the slow mushy zombie-movie middle. This, folks, is a freakin' breakthrough

You should go see it--if you have a good heart and like disaster movies.

Let's do the politics!

The Politics of World War Z
There are two elements to analyze here: the first is "who are the bad guys?" and the second is "who are the heroes?" (we can also make the second: Who lives? Who dies? And why?).

The Bad Guys
If you think the answer is "It's the zombies, duh." You are right--but you should take out the 'duh.' Many--in fact most--horror movies have an element of man-against-man to 'cut' the pure man-against-monster theme. In the WWZ novel, there was the guy selling fake zombie-inoculations. In both original Alien(s) movies there was a turn-coat on the staff. In WWZ? Basically? It's the zombies.

As I've said, the George Romero shambling zombies really represented consumer culture: brainless, couch-potato, eating machines. Today's fast zombies thematically represent the underclass rising up to eat the rich (literally--not just rhetorically). And if you paid ten bucks to sit in that theater? You're the rich. In WWZ the zombies are, however, almost not-even-human. They become these rolling masses of frantic arms, legs, and teeth. In WWZ there isn't any percentage in selling out your fellow humans: if you are exposed to the swarm you all die.

Sure, the US Navy guys are a bit unsympathetic (they will throw Pitt's family off the boat if he doesn't deliver: there is no room for non-essential personnel)--but they are not evil (they will relocate them to a remote protected camp ... which while not as safe as the fleet, is not a death sentence). There are a few people who run for their lives when the zombies come rather than completely pulling together--and some bad behavior by desperate people once in a while--but mostly?

Mostly people in WWZ treat each other decently. In the 1996 movie Trigger Effect where a vast blackout leads to a societal breakdown, we are treated to people behaving very selfishly (a pharmacist absolutely refuses to give a father medicine for his desperately sick daughter because, in the absence of phones and power, the doctor can't phone in a prescription). There is a somewhat analogous scene in WWZ where the opposite happens.

I suspect the writers for Trigger Effect felt they were hard folks looking a hard truth about the human condition right in the face (the first 10 minutes of the movie has the camera following various people around and we see them being entitled assholes). Perhaps their hard-core cynicism took a bit of a hit after 9/11 and we saw what people actually behave like during disasters? 

If the zombies in WWZ are actually a societal warning it is not about how "those people" will rise up and eat you. Instead it's that when the bottom falls out of society we all must pull together or perish terribly (to illustrate this, look at the images from WWZ: the zombies behave as a collective, building unplanned/emergent human bridges. We have to do the same but using our intellects).

This, despite what you may believe, has no left-vs-right leaning political message.

The Good Guys / Survivors
This is interesting. In WWZ losers include Washington DC (the president and vice president die off screen) and, thematically, basically all the politicians. The people who are left are the military command and some guys from the UN (who have some authority--but are not in charge).

North Korea survives (we hear) by pulling everyone's teeth. Israel survived by having a wall days before the invasion broke. Russia, we hear, has a massive on-going battle--but they have learned effective ways to fight back (flamethrowers, aggro-pulling zombies into kill zones. Apparently they play MMO over there.).

What does this tell us? A couple of things.
  1. Pragmatism beats politics. Pitt tells a family who takes them in that he's been in dangerous situations before and those who stayed in place didn't make it--you have to move. I recalled a real-life analysis of a ship-sinking: when the ship hit something, people who immediately went up the deck to the lifeboats lived. People who sat tight? Didn't. This plays out with the soft Washington bureaucrats and the hard-core Russian ass kickers (no word on if zombie Putin was captured with a purloined Superbowl ring).
  2. Israel lives due to what appears to be isolationism--but really turns out to be extreme pragmatism. While the rest of the world thinks zombie reports must be a cover for something else, their "Keep us alive at all cost" committee decides based on the decision of the one leader to build a giant wall.
I want to note that we see that wall get breached due to Israel's taking in of Palestinian refugees who are singing loudly and attract legions of zombies. Israel's basic humanity to their fellow humans (the guy talking to Pitt passes it off as pragmatism: every human we take in is one-less zombie to fight--but this doesn't really make a lot of sense considering the security concerns on taking anyone in) is what gets them killed.

Was that left or right wing? I'm going to say neither: if Israel had been portrayed as heartless I'd go with "left." If the breach came because of a Palestinian suicide bomber or something, I'd go with "right." What I think the combination is, though, is just cinematic raising-the-stakes so that we can keep Brad Pitt in motion and keep our heart-rates elevated.

What about Russia? Well, most of the battle of Russia was apparently ditched. I heard that the original ending had Pitt going to Russia and slaying zombies as a "warrior hero" and freeing legions of prisoners to fight the brutal battle. Apparently, in that end, he never made it home to his family and it was terribly bleak.

I don't think this, if true, says anything particularity good about Russia but rather that, perhaps, in brutal times, when brutality is called for, Russia is historically a good place to shop for some name-brand brutal? Anyone who has seen a drama involving Russian mobsters can attest to that stereotype being common.

Without having seen the footage, I am taking all this to guess that the political message Pitt cut out was a pretty generic "Washington is inefficient and navel-gazing! In order to get real work done we have to get out there and be pragmatic ass kickers--but with hearts of gold."

Anything Else?
There's some global warming / environmental stuff in the beginning of the movie but we never get a real origin for the plague (and the super genius describes 'mother nature' as a sadistic, crafty serial killer--so there's no cleansing the earth of evil mankind). In the remake of Dawn of the Dead, the 'explanation' we got was seeing an evil skull face imposed over the sun in the opening credits: apparently the universe just hated us there. I don't think the surface coat of WWZ's "environmentalism" goes too deeply.

The rifle in the RV? Thank-goodness for 2nd Amendment hunting rights. But it wasn't an AR-15 with a 30-round mag. 

The guys at the World Health Organization in the end turn out to be alright blokes--but so did the Russian pilots and the Israeli soldier and the UN commander. If it's trying to sell us on internationalization it'll have to do better than a few WHO scientists.

Neither left nor right. It's a big summer blockbuster with very little political message.


  1. Just watched the film. Do you have thoughts on the zombies' nickname "Zeke"? Curious that the book of Ezekiel is all about visions of Israel and her enemies suffering judgement.

    I think there's more going on in this film.

    1. This is not an unreasonable question. The disposition of Israel in the book (remains safe) and the movie (gets destroyed) is different. Furthermore, in the book, I believe the term for the zombies is 'Zack' and not 'Zeke.' This could lead to speculation that, indeed, something is being said.

      If there *is* a message from this variance it seems to be that pulling back from Jerusalem (book--not movie) is the right thing to do--and keeping Jerusalem (and letting in singing Palestinians) invites Judgement (capital 'J').

      While that is *possible*, I don't really buy it. The reason I don't is this: the destruction of Israel is a key plot-point of the movie. It (a) increases hopelessness for a darkest-before the dawn 3rd act and (b) provides a churning action scene just as Pitt arrives.

      In other words, if the movie had had Israel remain safe and secure the 3rd act would have lacked power and a major action scene would have had to find another place--and really, another *civilized* place (as in the opening action scene) which would be impossible to logically come by any time after Pitt arrives at the fleet.

      In other words, it is possible that the way Israel is destroyed is some kind of meta-commentary but as the particulars seem to me to be overwhelmingly plot oriented I don't believe that.