“All the book and movie have in common is a name; everything else is like night and day.”
I just got finished reading World War Z and honestly I had forgotten just how good this book is. I remember reading World War Z many years ago and liking it, and of course all of the praise that it receives almost constantly has made sure to never let me forget that people love it, but it wasn’t until reading this time around that I really understood how well this book is written. So for those who don’t know, World War Z is a book that is essentially a retelling of major events that took place around the world during a zombie apocalypse. Our main character travels around the world interviewing individuals who each have interesting stories to tell based on their own personal experience of the Zombie War. Of course there is also a movie with the same name that came out some time after the book, but we won’t get into that until later.
So what made World War Z so appealing to me? It was almost like a perfect storm of ideas and how they were executed. First of all I, like many other people in the world, absolutely love zombies. They have always fascinated me, but throughout the years the market has become oversaturated with their presence. Of course the traditional zombie is one thing (slow, never-ending, hungry), but this over-saturation led to many different “strands” to be created for the sole purpose of upping the ante. The idea of these slow-moving, brainless entities doesn’t really fly well with the current trend of action/horror movies which are very ‘in-your-face’. So of course changes had to be made, and while I understand these changes they will never sit right with me. Max Brooks obviously had a similar mindset when he flipped the bird to all of these changes and made sure that the zombies in World War Z were as traditional as they could be. The threat in World War Z is very slow, weak on their own (but they’re never on their own), and will stop at nothing to eat something. Hell, Brooks even went so far as to make the zombies walk around with their arms stretched out in front of them, which I thought was a great touch. But Brooks really understood what made zombies scary by showing us that, even in their traditional form, they could kick the shit out of anything so long as that anything isn’t prepared. And I also really loved that World War Z struck a brilliant storytelling balance that managed to give you the full scope of the action while not losing the personal touch. It’s hard to write a story, especially one about the entire world, because you’ll always be conflicted in terms of what to include. You can go full-on personal, giving your story a main character but only letting the audience see through this main character, or you can go global, giving the audience the full view but nothing to really latch on to. Most people decide to go with the former because it’s easier for audiences to connect to the story. Brooks, like I said, struck a balance between the two and managed to give us personal accounts, while also showing us the global implications.
When the world gets overrun with zombies there is obviously a lot to discuss, but I felt that Brooks did a good job of covering most of the bases. The story features interviews from various characters, and I found common thread connecting them: either they were important now (part of the government or relief efforts) and they spoke about a time where they were just normal people, or they were normal people now and they spoke of a time when they were important. I know it’s a bit confusing when I phrase it like that, but the point I’m trying to make is that almost all walks of life were covered. We got the stories of the military and the government, but we also got the ground-level stories that we could relate to. And there was never a question of how these people were found for this interview because that question is answered in who the people either are now, or who they were. This feels like a convoluted point, but I hope you understand what I’m getting at. I also really liked that Brooks spoke of all of the dangers of the war, not just the ones that rose from the dead. Unlike something like The Walking Dead, Brooks rarely fell back on the whole “people are the real enemy” trope. Instead he kept zombies dangerous, but also spoke of real threats like PTSD and depression. These are things that impact people literally today, and of course a culture shock like the present in World War Z would kickstart many more cases like them. This added a very real connection to the story and the characters, and also a very realistic world. When reading through World War Z I often forgot that it wasn’t real. I mean I understand that zombies don’t exist, but other than the dead rising and attacking the living there was nothing in World War Z that tipped me off to this being a manufactured world. World War Z is supposed to be a pseudo-history book about the Zombie war, and though it doesn’t resemble any textbook I’ve ever seen it really does immerse you. It even goes so far as to add footnotes for clarifications where they are needed, to give you that extra immersion into this world.
As far as individual stories or structure go, I can’t really tackle World War Z in any way that would be shorter than the book itself. I found the way that it was structured (different interviews categorized into different “portions” of the war) to be smart, and it allowed for the book to really fly by. There wan’t much ‘filler’ in World War Z, although I guess that depends on your definition of ‘filler’. World War Z goes to great lengths to essentially run a simulation on the world and see what would happen if zombies were to become a real threat. So for course you have your heart-pounding chapters that involve people running through streets with hordes of the undead nipping at their heels; but Brooks also takes the time to show you the other side of the fight too. One chapter that I’m sure some people might find slow is the chapter that focuses on the government programs put in place to help rebuild society. These may seem like filler to some due to their low action, but to me it seemed necessary. Max Brooks obviously put a lot of work into this world, so to gloss over something as important as the government trying to implement different programs would be almost criminal. As I said I didn’t find any part of this book boring; all parts were equally fascinating, if not thrilling. As for my favourite part of the book: the one that stood out to me after I had first read it was the battle of Yonkers. Re-reading this portion of World War Z made me realize exactly why I loved it; it truly does read like a brilliant film. It shows the utter hopelessness of the human race before we realized what we were up against, and it also paints a brilliant picture of the clashing of societies: the ‘before’ society focused only on news coverage and “getting the shot”, and the rude awakening that takes the form of zombies that force us to focus on survival. For this reason I also loved the follow-up chapters with Todd Wainio, because they showcased how exactly the military, as well as humanity, evolved over the course of the zombie war. But re-reading World War Z graced me with another contender for favourite segment, and that was the portion of the book that took place in Kyoto, Japan and followed Kondo Tatsumi, and then later Tomonaga Ijiro. This portion of the book really stood out to me when I was reading World War Z mainly because it was badass. Reading the segments where Tomonaga essentially wandered the wastelands as a blind ass-kicker was fucking sweet, and it made me long for a movie that would follow the same story. I include the segment with Kondo in there as well because, though it isn’t as fucking awesome as the Tomonaga interview, it once again showed the societal/cultural difference that is a recurring them in this book. Not to belittle any other segment of this book, but the Japan portion, as well as Yonkers, remain the shining examples of what makes World War Z so great in my eyes.
Now World War Z also has a film adaptation, and just to make this clear people fucking hate it. I never really understood the hate for this movie, but we’ll get into the a bit later. So the World War Z movie has absolutely nothing to do with the book. Like absolutely nothing. Well that’s not exactly true, they do share the same name (and some very, very minor story elements) but apart from that they are two completely different entities. And that is exactly why I don’t hate World War Z as much as everyone else. Obviously it was someones idea to make a World War Z movie, but then they realized that it would be really expensive or audiences wouldn’t connect to it or whatever, so they scrapped the project but kept the name. If you watch World War Z with this in mind, it’s not a movie that you can easily hate. But don’t get me wrong, it really does try to ignite that anger inside of you. So the biggest problem I have with World War Z is just how generic it is. Earlier I spoke of how in the book, zombies were taken back to their traditional form as a kind of ‘fuck you’ to the modern zombie; the movie doesn’t do this instead opting for the most ‘modern’ zombie we have ever gotten. I’m not joking when I say that World War Z is closer to a sequel to 28 Days Later than anything else. These zombies run, they smash, they leap, and they even climb over one another. This means that World War Z is essentially destined to blend in with every other zombie property that has been released since 2000, and that kind of flies in the face of what the book was going for.
But I’ve already talked about how the book and movie are nothing alike, so let’s talk about what we did get. So not only are the zombies generic, but the rest of the film follows suit. One thing that continuously bothered me about World War Z was the fact that it looked like the action was only following Brad Pitt, the film’s star. I understand that the movie is following Brad Pitt so there is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy there, but it really seemed like the zombies were attracted to him alone. The story went something like this: Brad Pitt goes somewhere safe, then zombies come, then Brad Pitt escapes to somewhere safe, then zombies come; rinse and repeat for two hours. And that isn’t to say that World War Z didn’t have some cool concepts in it, I really did like the ending portion of the film, but as a whole it just seemed really dull. And the pacing certainly didn’t help this problem because it had a very ‘hurry up and wait’ philosophy. Within the first ten minutes we get to witness the zombie outbreak, but then nothing happens. fifteen minutes go by and then we get some more action, then nothing happens. Once again this formula repeats for the entirety of the movie, leaving you bored out of your mind for most of it. The story portions in World War Z weren’t bad, but once agin they were just very basic. There were some moments I liked (like the countdown/transformation scene), but most of them just felt like they had been done before. To be perfectly honest, I got sick of the fact that Brad Pitt was constantly discovering facts about the zombies by looking over his shoulder. I get it he’s the star of the movie, but would it be so detrimental to have another character go “Hey, they don’t attack sick people”? World War Z tried so hard to make Brad Pitt the center of attention, even going so far as to kill off the “only hope for humanity” in one of the dumbest ways possible just to put Pitt in charge. I can’t hammer this point home enough: World War Z was just so generic. And what bothers me most about World War Z isn’t the movie itself, but the wasted opportunity. I’m not talking about the book here, but scrapped parts of the story that actually still have pieces left in the final cut. Did you ever wonder why Matthew Fox was that one soldier who rescued Brad Pitt’s family, and then he just kind of hangs around for the rest of the movie? I mean, Matthew Fox is no household name, but surely it would have been cheaper to cast an extra in that minuscule role. Well apparently that was part of a scrapped storyline. It’s been a while since I’ve read anything on the subject but to my knowledge there was going to be a very dark storyline involving Matthew Fox’s character essentially taking Brad Pitt’s family hostage, and then Pitt would have to rescue them. Sure I’m not doing the story any justice, but it sounds a lot better than what we got.
And even things on a technical level in World War Z kind of sucked. For one you have the CGI in the movie which was a pretty big letdown on all fronts. I will admit that the makeup effects for the zombies was pretty good, but one out of every ten zombies (more in wide shots) would be completely computer-generated, and that made it seem like Brad Pitt was running around in a video game. And that doesn’t even begin to mention the terrible explosion effects (once again this mainly pertains to shots in the distance), and the most egregious sin in any film: digital blood. It’s weird when some dude crushes the head of a zombie, blood spurts out from under his foot creating a geyser of gore but not a drop of blood gets on him, isn’t it? Well if that bothers you, don’t watch World War Z. But even past the shitty effects you have one of the most confusing aspects of World War Z: the score. Alright, I’m going to set a scene for you: it’s early in the morning, everyone is sitting in traffic. Suddenly zombies swarm the position and start attacking anyone and everyone, leaving those who are left to run frantically for their lives. What kind of music did you picture in that scenario? If you answered ‘dubstep’, then you would have been perfect for the World War Z production team. I don’t know who let their fifteen-year-old son decide which music went into World War Z, but they should no longer have a job. The score in this movie made me feel like I was watching Hackers, or an old Fast and Furious movie, not a movie wherein society is collapsing and people are being eaten alive by zombies. And the best example of this is right at the end of the film; a very touching moment fades to black and we are serenaded with the sounds of electronic whining and baselines. This moment was so bizarre that I couldn’t help but laugh; and I continued to laugh until the song stopped.
Overall World War Z as a whole is a pretty interesting phenomenon. You have the book which returns zombies to their roots and tells a compelling story about their attack, and you have the movie which is about as generic as you can get when making a zombie movie. All the book and movie have in common is a name; everything else is like night and day. Where the book is engaging, creative, and masterfully written; the movie stars Brad Pitt. Where the book has amazing characters in extraordinary situations that outline exactly what it means to be human; the movie has Brad Pitt. There really isn’t much more I can say about either iteration of the story, other than the movie, once again, had Brad Pitt.