Long, long before you get around to deciding on the merits of World War Z, there is a much more fundamental question to ask: Does the world need yet another apocalyptic zombie movie? And for that matter do we really need more movies and TV series about Sherlock Holmes, Batman, Spiderman, James Bond and a host of other franchises? There are so many zombie epics that I can’t even count them all (see the list here), many of which are of the virus-turns-men-into-flesh-eating-killers variety (28 Days Later being the most famous, but here is a list of others.)
Ignoring the voodoo origins of the walking dead, there is a kind of timelessness about the principle of the dead waking and coming back to haunt the living, one which has been around since long before death was understood. If ghost stories are one side of the equation, the brainless instinct-led zombie infestations are the other – though it was always stretching the credibility of cynical modern audiences beyond snapping point that there was a means that would cause the dead to rise from their graves – so the virus pandemic was the next obvious direction of travel.
One or two you could understand, but hundreds? In short, these are unashamedly derivative glorifications of the living dead concept, thus illustrating the paucity of imagination within studios. And yet, I hear there is a sequel to WWZ being made, not to mention another apocalyptic zombie film starring, wait for it, Glenn Close and Gemma Arterton, currently in production. Sorry people but killing zombies before they eat you is passé, not to mention, er, overkill!
You can’t blame George A Romero, for when he kicked off the modern trend in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead it was very new to mainstream audiences and decidedly scary. As Roger Ebert described the opening night:
“The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying… It’s hard to remember what sort of effect this movie might have had on you when you were six or seven. But try to remember. At that age, kids take the events on the screen seriously, and they identify fiercely with the hero. When the hero is killed, that’s not an unhappy ending but a tragic one: Nobody got out alive. It’s just over, that’s all.”
Since everybody 11 and up has now seen zombie movies already, what difference is another one going to make? What value can possibly be added by WWZ? The answer is an A-lister (Brad Pitt), sheer size and scale (of which more anon) and one clever concept that probably went above the heads of adolescent viewers. Apart from that, the movie barely kept me awake – though unlike those early viewers of Night of the Living Dead, not through sheer terror so much as boredom.
On the scale of the production, you have to admire the industry that has successfully trashed so many of the world’s most recognisable cities, much as The Day After Tomorrow saw NYC flooded and frozen, for example. The set-piece ruinations are undeniably impressive, but what the teens really want to see is nasty zombies, and there’s no doubt about it, the scale of the zombie invasion would take some beating.
Pandemically-infected snarling, drooling CGI zombies swarm everywhere, they rush from all corners of the screen, they form vast ex-human pyramids, they hurl themselves lemming-like off walls by the thousand, they dive head first through car windscreens, in fact they lunge anywhere fang-first to chew live human flesh.
This is unmistakably a technical tour-de-force, though I must apologise for being old fashioned to a tee: to me CGI is not an alternative to the quintessential qualities of good film-making. You know, stuff like acting, script-writing and building tension in the direction, like Hitch used to do. Of course there are dark internal screens and zombies to pick off with whatever weapons fall to hand, which reminded me of nothing so much as my son’s Call of Duty: Black Ops zombie game.
Since many of the “human” interludes are decidedly hackneyed and less than convincing, you might consider CGI zombies a preferably alternative, but to be fair there are snippets of the craft of acting on display: Pitt’s interaction with an Israeli soldier called Segen (Daniella Kertesz) spring to mind, as does the moments when he finds himself chained to a trolley and talking to the excellent Peter Capaldi in the guise of a WHO doctor (geddit?)
Sadly, the inevitable “family moments” as Pitt clings to his wife (Mireille Enos) and kids before flying off with UN special forces to save the world were as inevitable as they were unconvincing and perfunctory (tick in the box.) Brad doesn’t quite send in his performance by post but he looks by far the happier being the all-action hero in a turn that made me long for a glimpse of his real full tilt acting skills (try Snatch to see what I mean.)
Ah, but I promised you the germ of a good idea, and it comes with the subtlety, well, of a zombie invasion in Jerusalem. The ancient city has been reinforced as a fortress against the rising tide of zombies. But there they go, spilling over against the innocent peace-loving Israelis, metaphorically at least like suicide bombers. From a political and human perspective many would baulk at the suggestion, but it is undeniably a clever piece of propaganda.
All this is well and good, but it simply did not hold my attention. I found myself wondering if I’d fed the cats and what I would make for dinner the next day. I checked whether I’d set the alarm for tomorrow morning, I yawned long and hard. In short, my zombie ennui had set in from the first five minutes, and nothing on screen did much to turn engage my interest, any more than the previous 25 zombie movies did – not since The Living Dead From The Manchester Morgue has any zombie movie done that, which I saw in the late 70s as the B-pic to Halloween with my mate Nigel, and maybe Dead and Buried which I saw a year or so later in Nottingham. Oh my, there’s a piece of nostalgia for you!
Here’s a suggestion for studio bosses, producers, writers and directors everywhere: forget zombies, move on and find a new topic with which to thrill and entertain the crowds.