Movie reviews are inherently judgmental, but I may be venturing into pure prejudice by reviewing a film I haven’t seen and won’t be released for another four and a half months. Oh well. The producers asked for it by deciding to show the new trailer during the Super Bowl. It’s a coming-out party for World War Z, and I’m inviting myself.
The good news is that I’m not disappointed. The bad news is that I never expected it to be good in the first place. Very loosely based on the book by Max Brooks (in other words, they retained the title), World War Z tells the story of Brad Pitt, an actor who is pretty darned famous considering he hasn’t been in many good movies, and a bunch of zombies taking over the world. Somehow he is important to the plot. I remind you I haven’t seen it, and I confess to only getting through a quarter of the “novel” before realizing it is not a novel at all. It is a fictional binder of semi-related zombie anecdotes.
Modern American Zombies, the undead flesh eaters established by George Romero in Night of the Living Dead in 1968, are simply too visceral and visual for literature. That’s why we love zombie movies, TV shows, and comics. We need to see the rotted meat and the guts, because, when you strip away all the platitudes and comforting clichés, death is pretty much rotted meat and guts. Good zombie tales force us to confront our fears about decay and loss the same way a bad pet owner forces a puppy to confront the doo doo on the rug… by shoving our faces in it. It’s the one horror sub-genre for which the phrase “better left to the imagination” does not apply.
Books are good at getting in character’s heads the way movies never can, but zombies don’t think. And human characters have essentially three reactions to the sight of the undead: Revulsion at the creatures’ appearance, fear for their own safety, and sorrow if the zombie is someone they once knew. Even an actor of average talent should be able to convey those emotions pretty convincingly. You don’t need Hemingway to drive it home. You don’t even need Max Brooks.
A brief aside: Albert Brooks is a different story. If Albert Brooks ever makes a zombie flick – Lost in America style, with Julie Hagerty, a Winnebago, and lots of Woody-Allenish riffs about zombie table manners – I’m there.
Back to my faux review.
The second reason World War Z fails is that it’s unnecessary. AMC’s The Walking Dead is already everything people want in a zombie story. It’s bloody, it’s high stakes, and it’s bleak. The zombies are the impetus for pitting humans against humans and for making the characters reveal their truest, darkest, most basic selves. And it’s got zombie fortresses. Anybody and everybody who claims to be a lover of the zombie genre has fantasized about making a zombie fortress. Or at least imagined where they’d go or how they’d shore up their own house. Heck, I worry everyday about the window that opens onto the porch of my apartment. I might as well put up a blinking neon arrow above it with a sign that says, “Fresh Meat!”
One of The Walking Dead’s finest qualities is the up-close storytelling. Sure, it’s epic, but, outside a few money shots in season one, most of the action takes place in tight and is emotionally potent. World War Z also tells of a zombie apocalypse, but it looks like they’re really trying to sell us on the concept with all those widescreen shots of mass zombie destruction. Don’t they know that one zombie standing in a darkened corner is a hundred times more frightening than ten thousand CG zombies swarming over a building?
And therein lies the biggest problem with this film: Money. As in, they spent too much. With a reported budget of $125 million that is rumored to have ballooned to $200 million, World War Z is going for spectacle.
How many times do movie people have to learn the same damned lesson about the horror genre? Cheap is better. Expensive genre movies almost always suck. Night of the Living Dead cost about eight dollars and forty-three cents and we’re still watching and talking about it today. Halloween cost less than half a million, and it’s still the genre blueprint. They write academic books about those flicks and teach them in film school.
Given the tremendous financial outlay, WWZ will have to be released as PG13 to grab the widest audience, so you can make the case that it’s not a horror movie at all. Oh good, a movie about undead flesh-eating ghouls that isn’t scary or believable, but is stupidly expensive. If there’s one thing missing from the canon of world cinema, it’s an ersatz sequel to I Am Legend. I can’t get enough of cartoon zombies that look less texturally natural than a Pixar character.
The latter film was also based on a book, the terrific I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, which told of a global zom-pire epidemic. It had been filmed twice before, as The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man, and it failed those times as well. The moral of the story is that zombie-themed armageddon tales don’t work on the big screen. It probably didn’t help that Will Smith’s version so dramatically altered the ending that the entire point of the story and the reason for the title “I Am Legend” was ground into zombie sausage.
So if the mediocre popcorn film I Am Legend was spawned by a profound, provocative, and gripping novella by Richard Matheson, what kind of movie will result from a mediocre popcorn book like World War Z by Max Brooks?
To paraphrase Ebenezer Scrooge, these are shadows of things that might be, not shadows of things that must be. World War Z may turn out to be brilliant. It could be a disaster. Either way, it can’t hurt to get a review in ahead of time. You never know when that zombie apocalypse is gonna hit.