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FROM PAGE TO SCREEN: WORLD WAR Z (TBA)
 



 

Even if you are tired of zombie flicks, you'd be glad to hear that World War Z – a novel about a zombie infestation that almost destroys the entire planet – is being turned into a movie . . .

Written in 2006, World War Z was the “sequel” to author Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide, which offered “complete protection from the living dead” as the blurb declared. It was a one-joke, tongue-in-cheek book in which that one joke got pretty tired pretty quick and it is best read (if at all) as a companion piece to World War Z.

World War Z is one of those fictional books that pretends to be non-fiction – who knows what aliens scavenging the remains of our dead culture will make of all this one day! It tells the story of a zombie plague that nearly wiped out mankind when governments and armies are initially unable to control the global infestation. Ten years after the war has ended, author Max Brooks goes around interviewing various people across the globe about their experiences during World War Z.

A critic once remarked of George Romero’s seminal 1968 zombie flick Night of the Living Dead that it is a science fiction movie pretending to be a horror movie. The same goes for World War Z. It is more science fiction than horror, less interested in chills than in recounting how this future world’s various governments and societies fail to cope with a virus that turns the recently dead into mindless cannibalistic creatures that in turn infect the living.

Ironically it is only geographically isolated, authoritarian societies such as North Korea and Cuba that copes best with controlling the outbreak. (In a stunning reversal of fortune, Cuba in fact becomes the world’s economic powerhouse since its population and infrastructure remain largely unscathed during the outbreak. All because Castro’s secret police early on threw the zombies into prison camps!) Open democratic societies have a much tougher time halting the spread of the disease and coping with the zombie hordes within their own borders. Brooks especially has it in for incompetent government bureaucracies (which keep the public uninformed of the rising threat in an effort to prevent any large-scale panic) and huge multinational corporations that cynically produce a zombie “inoculation” that doesn’t work.

What is Brooks trying to tell us? That our governments will have a tough time coping with a large-scale zombie infestation? No arguments there. We don’t think that that is exactly a possibility covered by their Civil Defense planning . . .

The zombie invasion alters the Earth’s geopolitical map. Pakistan and Iran nukes one another; China becomes a democracy following a civil war; and Russia becomes a scary theocracy. Unlike Brooks’ previous novel, World War Z is pretty darned serious. And it works rather well except for one or two daft moments. In one such daft segment a blind Japanese pensioner becomes an adept zombie-slayer. In another South Africa repurposes an old Apartheid-era plan that was meant to be a last possible resort to deal with a full-scale uprising by its native Black population. The plan ends up saving the world, thanks to Nelson Mandela – the Great Reconciler – who insisted upon it being used even though it was dreamt up by a racist apartheid apparatchik!

The good outweighs the bad by far however. There are several action set pieces in the novel that makes one salivate at the thought of them being turned into a movie. One is in an “interview” in which a US soldier tells of the epic Battle of Yonkers. The battle was supposed to be a showpiece by the US military to illustrate that it is indeed ready to simply blow away the zombie threat. The direct opposite of course happens: the battle is a huge setback instead. The soldiers are trained for conventional warfare against, well, the living. Being engulfed by hordes of the undead that can only be killed by headshots wasn’t exactly something NATO planners considered a possibility during the Cold War. Soon they are overrun by the living dead despite their massive firepower.

 

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Another great action scene is one in which a lone female pilot crash-lands in hostile zombie territory and must make her way to a safe zone. Other “interviews” or segments include a soldier telling of the extreme disciplinary measures taken by the Russian military when soldiers refuse to leave doomed civilians to their fate; a Japanese computer geek escaping his infested apartment block using sheets tied together like in a, er, movie; divers having to clear the ocean bottom of “live” zombies; and so on.

Sure, some of it is your typical post-apocalypse stuff that will be familiar to anyone who has seen 28 Weeks Later, I Am Legend or even The Happening, but Brooks lends an unexpected emotional resonance to the material at hand by taking it all very seriously. This ain’t no Shaun of the Dead. Which is probably how Brad Pitt’s production company (who obtained rights to the novel after outbidding Leonardo diCaprio’s company) managed to attract Marc Forster to direct a movie version of the book. The movie is set for a 2010 release date.

Forster is a very “serious” film-maker (The Kite Runner, Monster's Ball, Stranger Than Fiction) who is sometimes criticized for his ham-fisted approach by film critics. He has proven himself capable of directing larger scale action blockbusters with the recent Bond movie, Quantum of Solace. Quantum was however a mixed bag at best, but hopefully Forster has been reading some reviews and will have dropped some of his annoying tricks copied mostly from the Bourne movies such as jerky cam movements, incoherent editing and the like. (As well as his attempts at being “deep,” which in Quantum resulted in a laughably pretentious action scene set in an opera house.)

J. Michael Straczynski, best known for Babylon 5, has already written a script for World War Z. There are two ways for a film-maker to present the material at hand: a fake documentary approach which echoes the mockumentary “interviews” in Brooks’ book; or a straight-forward narrative in which several of the characters in the book are condensed into one or two central figures. Wisely enough Straczynski has opted for the latter option. After all, did we really need yet another zombie movie filmed in the style of Quarantine?

Forster has likened the planned movie to ‘Seventies conspiracy thrillers such as All the President's Men. Straczynski in turn has compared the movie to The Bourne Identity and remarked that World War Z will have a large international scope while keeping the film as political as the book was. Judging from some concept art work leaked onto the Internet (see this page), it seems that this approach still means an epic approach in which scenes such as the Battle of Yonkers scene have been retained.

There are many such epic scenes – of masses of humanity fleeing the oncoming zombie hordes; of harbors being blocked by derelict ships; and so on. As of yet little is known of the project. There have been no announcements regarding casting and the film’s budget. Filming such scenes can be hugely expensive. The famous evacuation scene in Will Smith’s I Am Legend is rumored to have cost the studio anything from $5 million to $30 million, for example. One can only wonder how much World War Z is going to cost - and whether it will be money well spent. Horror movies have great opening weekends, but they soon taper off at the box office. They are ultimately profitable because they are cheap to produce. You don’t need expensive crowd scenes and CGI effects to make Friday the 13th or Halloween, but if they want to do Brooks’ book justice then that is exactly what World War Z will need.

This means that World War Z will probably be marketed at more mainstream audiences to justify its no doubt bigger budget. Does that mean a star for the main role instead of the usual unknowns to be found in horror flicks? One can only speculate. A “borderline” expensive horror movie such as I Am Legend only scored big at the box office because it had Will Smith and a minimum of gore. Director Forster would probably want to push World War Z into more “dramatic” pastures instead of focusing on its horror elements. The problem is, will mainstream audiences buy into a post-apocalyptic zombie flick after the likes of 28 Days Later and its sequel, I Am Legend and Dawn of the Dead not to mention the countless other recent cheapo zombie DVDs making the shelves groan at your local video store?

Still, whatever the end product may be: World War Z is a worth-while read that even those tired of zombies would want to check out. The whole zombie plague destroying mankind thing may be a cliché, but Brooks still manages to make something worthwhile out of the premise. Fans of End Times literature should check it out before the film hits the big screen. Moviegoers on the other hand can only hope for the best . . .
 

 

 



 

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