World War Z and the Great Panic

Fair Warning: In order to talk about the World War Z film, I need to go into a bit of detail about the plot of the book. If you haven’t read the book yet and want to avoid spoilers, you might want to stop reading now.

You would be hard pressed to find a zombie enthusiast community that hasn’t been excited about the upcoming Brad Pitt starring adaptation of Max Brooks’ World War Z. And why wouldn’t they be? All the ingredients are perfect: you have very good book written by a die-hard zombie fan, an A list celebrity star who – while you may not enjoy his tabloid coverage – is indeed a top notch actor who has done very few bad movies, and a big studio is behind it giving it the right budget and resources to create it. I think we can all admit that zombie movies are notoriously bad, and for the most part rarely enjoyed outside of a niche group of diehard fans within the zombie niche genre itself. That said, it looked like we finally had the perfect situation for a zombie movie done right. What could possibly go wrong?

Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

Actually let me back up and briefly catch people up who have never read World War Z (you know, the ones who aren’t so worried about spoilers), or maybe even need a small refresher. The full title of the book is World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War; with that in mind it’s easy to surmise that the Zombie War (the titular World War Z) has already happened and that the story of the war is being told by those who experienced it firsthand. The book is series of interviews that come in from survivors who recount stories from the beginning of the outbreak to life after everything has collapsed and humanity is on the brink of extinction. By design, there is no main character and the stories can last anywhere from a few sentences to a traditional chapter length. You could make the case it is nothing but a collection of short stories, but it all ties together both chronologically and thematically to tell a complete story.

The genius of this documentary style book is it covers everything from the futility of modern weapons to survivor stories that leave you feeling utterly hopeless. This is a depressingly logical prediction of how quickly and easily the human dominated world can be undone. Unlike a lot of zombie stories, World War Z tackles issues of practical survival on up to the political and sociological impact of a zombie apocalypse. A lot of the horror in the book comes not from the zombies, but from accounts of survivors who have seen or were forced to do horrible things. These can be personal crimes like cannibalism, or fully-sanctioned geopolitical atrocities that I won’t divulge here because even those of you who aren’t worried about spoilers should have this spoiled for you.World War Z shows us the desperate lengths humanity must go to in order to survive, and how those adapt to become the “new normal”, so to speak. The story is absolutely terrifying in its realistic approach to a fiction problem, and its unique ability to follow that through to the logical extreme. Without giving too much away, one of the most powerful things a story can do to an audience is present it with something truly horrific that goes against everything a person can believe in, and then make them agree that it was the right thing to do. This is the essence of World War Z.

Now let’s get back to the movie that is currently in production. It is, of course, only fair to acknowledge that fans are notoriously difficult to please when their books (including comics) are adapted into movies. It’s rare that a devoted fan is fully satisfied, as you simply cannot fit everything from a book into a movie. For the sake of time and narrative structure, you have to combine stories and characters or simply leave them out. A Hollywood script is somewhere around 115 pages, while World War Z is 342. We’re going to have to expect a lot changes, but the news coming out of the World War Z production goes beyond the norm. So why have the cheers turned to outrage?

Two main reasons:

1. Changes to the Story: Take a look at the official press release from Paramount: “The story revolves around United Nations employee Gerry Lane (Pitt), who traverses the world in a race against time to stop the Zombie pandemic that is toppling armies and governments and threatening to decimate humanity itself.” Remember, the full title of the book is World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War; see any problems here? The implication of the press release is that the zombie war is preventable; not only that, but we’re going to be actively rooting for Pitt’s character to stop the zombies before they can cause too much devastation. Instead of examining how our complex world would deal with this problem, it almost seems like they are making an action thriller where the bad guys are zombies instead of the typical evil terrorists. This is such a massive change that you have to wonder why they even bothered to buy the rights to the book, as the entire context of the story has shifted from apocalypse to a disease containment movie like the 1995 movie Outbreak with Dustin Hoffman.

2. PG-13 rating: The powers that be in Hollywood that have not read the book will likely dismiss concern over the ratings issue by writing it off as Zombie fanboys simply craving blood and gore. While you can certainly tell a very good story and lots of action and clever dialog with a PG-13 rating, the simple fact is the horror in this story cannot be watered down to such a rating without losing the tone of the novel. Censoring this story simply cannot be done well, and therefore shouldn’t be done at all. There is a reason why World War Z is so popular, and taking away the parts that made you clench your teeth hoping something like this never happens is diluting the horror to the point where it is no longer effective. The story is gritty and full of never-ending horrors that simply can’t be sterilized to meet such an arbitrary movie rating. Swarms of zombies massacring the world and the horrors must be done to stop them isn’t a pretty story, nor should it shoehorned into one in order to fit a rating.

Hollywood is likely nervous about spending a whole lot of money on a zombie story. It’s an untested model for ticket buyers who have historically preferred mindless cookie cutter predictability like Michael Bay. People say Hollywood is out of ideas, but I disagree. Hollywood isn’t out of ideas; they’re out of courage. Let’s face reality here: it’s obvious the decision makers are not fans of this genre, do not understand the fans, and have most likely not even read the book. They are approaching this adaptation like an accounting problem to be solved as they have nothing but money vested in the idea instead of passion and enthusiasm like the fans do. Corporate Hollywood wants to make a mass appeal movie, but they’re doing so by adapting a book that appeals to a niche market. There’s a pretty massive disconnect there, and the producers are taking some bizarre steps to rectify it.

So why bother making this book into this movie in the first place? It’s clearly got something going for it, as it has crossed over a bit into mainstream and drawn significant critical praise. But it’s still far from a household name. The consensus among fans is that this would have been better off as a HBO or Showtime mini-series (think Band of Brothers or Generation Kill). I simply don’t buy into the idea of a saturated market thanks to AMC’s The Walking Dead. I mean, how many cookie cutter cop and reality TV shows exist? If the property makes money it can be made regardless of who else is doing something similar.

Don’t worry, all is not doom and gloom. While we may be annoyed at seeing Brad Pitt on the covers of magazines wandering the globe with his adopted collection of simple, hard-working indigenous children of… wherever, the fellow is a hell of a good actor who has been in some brilliant movies. And let’s not forget, there are cases where the movie is indeed better than the book, and coincidentally Brad is a star in one of them: Fight Club. Chuck Palahniuk is one of my favorite writers – and I truly love the book –  but I really thought the story worked better in the film. And speaking of Fight Club itself faced a rating issue with the MPAA as it had to be censored to move away from a NC-17 rating. Of course it was still able to capture the essence of the book with an R rating, something I’m concerned won’t happen with World War Z‘sPG-13.

So will World War Z be a good movie? I think it probably will, even if it has little resemblance to the novel. While I think it will be good, I don’t believe it will capture the passion, imagination or loyalty of fans like 28 days Later or Dawn of the Dead have done over time.

42 Comments

the dude person

Guess what day in December?

…the 21st.

According to the ancient Mayans (or rather the crackpots who’ve studied them), this could very well be the last movie the world will ever see.

Reply
zombiemutts

Everyone believes in the Mayan prophecies doom and glooming but…

…..ready for it?…

………………………The Mayans!

Pretty smart people really…they designed it so the darn thing just to start over again just like every other calender. “The Long Count.”

the dude person

Hah, I know. I can’t honestly say how the end of the calendar turned into the apocalypse, and became a common belief.

I’ve said this to people before, “When does your calendar end?” 😉

Dave

Funny you should mention that, because I stock up on survival supplies every December. I mean, my calendar is running out and that has to mean something, right?

SWAtminifigGUY

And nobody bothers to think that the Mayans just got fed up with making a load of calendars when none of them were going to be using them any time soon.

Reply
Darg

Not to mention, their entire society disappeared from the face of the planet. It’s hard to make new calendars when your whole civilization collapses.

Dave

Very nice write-up here by ZombieMutts.

I’m taking a wait and see approach on this one. The plot summary bothers me, but who knows how accurate it is. You never know, the whole “race against time” thing might just be a setup for a sequel. The nature of this book doesn’t really lend itself to a single film, so maybe the idea here is to try to build it into a franchise: part one is trying and failing to prevent the pandemic, part two is the nasty bits, and part three is the turning point and the denouement.

I might be naively optimistic here.

Reply
Dave

Don’t forget, this is marketing talking. Maybe they’re just spinning to appeal to a bigger audience? I mean, that’s possible, right?

Reply
zombiemutts

No I don’t think so. This news and its reaction has been out for a few weeks now and the backlash has been so vocal I think they would have already sent something out to calm every down.

So at this point they either don’t care or they are changing the script up a bit due to backlash and will claim it was always a misunderstanding.

A Monkey

My question is, what role is Brad Pitt playing? Are they going to turn it into a regular zombie movie (ie, 28 days later) and just mention the other events, (like Zonkers or Phlananx) in passing, or, will Pitt be “playing” Max Brooks, and going around the world to talk to people? Ideally, with this version, there’d be a whole bunch of flashbacks.

Reply
Dave

Well in the book, the narrator does mention that he had worked for the UN to compile a report on the zombie war, which included reams of people’s personal remembrances. The UN only wanted a bland report and suggested he turn the rest into his own book. With that in mind, I’m thinking Pitt is still playing a character based on the narrator of WWZ, but they’re exaggerating quite a bit.

My image of the narrator is a bookish analyst, while this press release suggests something more akin to a covert operative. I don’t like that change one bit.

Reply
zombiemutts

It really is a good question how it will play out even though we know what the basic idea will be. Dave has the same general idea as I do. In the book he is a just some guy who receives all the information through interviews. I envisioned him as a scholarly type who is a master of linguistics and cultures since he is dealing with so many foreigners taking in global accounts to put everything together. He is taking in the story…not becoming it. Drastic change and typical Hollywood uncreative thinking. Taking something fresh unique and change it up so you homogenize it so its not too different that what’s already been done. It makes no sense to me!

Reply
Yatkuu

I can’t believe I never heard of that book… sounds awesome! I have to say that picturing Brad Pitt in a zombie movie never occurred to me.. but it sounds cool!
I tend to never mix a book and a movie experience, there is just too many differences. While “The Lord of the Rings” made me dream of a fantasy world, the movies only made me have a (very) good time.

Reply
zombiemutts

Its an amazing collection of tales and can please zombie purists to fans who like variety.

The best part about Max Brooks is he is a fan just like us so he basically made the perfect zombie book and it’s a tragedy the studios are going to ruin it.

Reply
Dave

I couldn’t recommend the book highly enough. It’s a fun read, even if you’re not a fan of zombies. My wife – who can’t stand zombies – was totally sucked in.

Reply
Yatkuu

Hehe, my wife is also anti-zombies… the only moments where I can watch zombie movies is when she is going out with her friends (about once a month). The best part is when people tell her “oh, you leave your husband alone at home?” and she replies “nah, he’s having a good time watching his special movies!”

Reply
zombiemutts

I got my gal to watch Walking Dead with me and that’s the only battle I am going to try to win since it has a storyline that isn’t solely based on horror but from what its looking like, season two may be a whole other animal.

Reply
Dave

My wife inexplicably loves that movie, even though they (spoilers) kill off the cute kids and the dog (we had a German Shepherd when the movie came out).

Dave

This was my favorite part: ”We want to survive a zombie attack and then hug because we’re in love!”

Reply
the dude person

I actually didn’t read most of this blog post, because I haven’t read the book yet!

I actually just yesterday started reading Brooks’s Zombie Survival Guide, coincidentally enough.

So I’ll have to finish the guide, then WWZ, then come back here and read this blog post.

Reply
Dave

I’ll have a review up of the guide in the next couple of weeks. You’re in for a treat with WWZ; it’s a heck of a fun book.

Reply
Dave

It’s not really something that lends itself terribly well to a straight through read. It is very structurally similar to actual survival guides (with the exception of the last segment), which is a pretty ballsy thing to do if you ask me.

the dude person

Hah, I definitely agree Dave! But I’m still trying to read it once straight through (I’m about 60 pages in, now.)

If even a Class 1 outbreak occurred where you lived, you wouldn’t want to be stuck at work or in the street, wondering, “how am I supposed to survive? Darn, if only I’d read that guide all the way through…” 😉

zombiemutts

This really is a good book altho the style is so disjointed it takes a few dozen pages to get comfortable with it. Its very untraditional.

Reply
Yatkuu

Based on the recommendation of zombiemutts I bought myself a copy of WWZ… I finished reading it a few days ago and I wanted to share with you guys some of my impressions.

Spoiler alert!! Be advised that some of my comments will reveal parts of the story…

What I liked most:
The structure of the book is very original – I wonder how the author actually wrote it but cutting the story into these “interviews” is great as it only reveals the big picture slowly and in my opinion the author is not taking the reader for an idiot. I mean, sometimes the agenda of an author is so obvious that it becomes insulting – here there is no such things and you need to figure out a few parts of the story by yourself and that is very rewarding.
New Zombie stuff – this might not be the case for everyone here but several ideas where completely new to me – the “sea born” zombies (awesome concept), the frozen zeds coming back to life after the winter, the dogs (one of my favorite parts)
The true international aspect of the story – for once we don’t have a single point of view (i.e. the Americans…) and I have the feeling the author really tried to learn things about different cultures and to include that aspect in the story. For instance the Chinese sub or the Japanese internet addict parts are really good ansd “feel” authentic. (There’s even a Belgian mentioned! => yes, in case you wonder, I’m from Belgium…)

What I liked less:
Of course… the Americans had to play a central role in the end – it probably makes sense but it’s just a bit too predictable for me.
The “veterans talk” – maybe I’ve read too much of these already but the parts of the story told by army veterans sounded a bit too cliché. It’s a bit hard to explain how I feel but some parts sounded a bit too “Tom Clancy” style if you see what I mean. I guess it’s probably a trap that is difficult to avoid and for all I know it could even be an accurate way to describe the way vets are talking… but I’m not fond of those.

I’m looking forward to see the movie now – although I fear they’ll probably miss the point. I just hope they’ll make a good zombie movie that could be watched as a complementary story to the original one.

Reply
Dave

I can definitely see your point about the American centrism in the book. As an American, it’s just par for the course. I wish it had been a little less pronounced though.

Reply
Yatkuu

Well it is probably fair enough to have a good amount of the story focused on the US… and I’d even say that it is pretty well balanced with other countries too (not to mention that the US military get their ass kicked big time!).
I was only disappointed by the fact that the decision to fight back came from the US… I mean, it’s ID4 all over again!

Reply
zombiemutts

I agree about the role of America. In fact I get annoyed about how many Zombie books take place in America but unfortunately most of these genre writers are America or Canadian. There is a few European writers specifically British and Irish that I can think of and I really hope for more.

I am also very tired of books taking place in New York but it really is the perfect ground for something to happen since its closed off and heavily populated.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Yatkuu….if you want to read another zombie book I will gladly recommend one for you.

Also Yatkuu…there is a BBC series released overseas I am trying to track down that I was wondering if you have seen. Its called “Dead Set” it’s a 2 ½ hour (6 episodes) mini-series. Its supposed to be a Big Brother type show but zombies come into play.

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *