World War Z thoughts along with a bit of Zombie film history

This weekend saw the release of what will likely be the most expensive zombie flick ever created.  World War Z is a *ahem* "loose" adaption of Max Brooks' novel of the same name.  But before we get into the film it's time for a bit of a history lesson on all things zombie.

One of the first known literary examples of the zombie was in 1929, William Seabrook's The Magic Island told of Haitians, thought to be long dead, coming back from the grave as undead slaves for Voodoo Priests.  Three Years later Universal Studios would release White Zombie, much like in Seabrook's novel the zombies featured in the film were brought back through Voodoo practices, this time by a man known simply as "Murder" Legendre (Bela Lugosi.)  Following White Zombie there would be a handful of other films featuring the same type of voodoo slave.  Revolt of the Zombies, The Man They Could Not Hang, and The Walking Dead are a few decent examples, though none would live up to the 1932 film.

By the time the 60's hit things were a bit different.  While Universal Studios still ruled the film world the horror films present were taking a more serious and occasionally graphic turn.  1960's Psycho is a great example of this.  Full of jumps and scares like the Universal films of the 30's, but from a much different approach.  1963 saw the release of H.G. Lewis' Blood Feast, a film considered to be the first real "splatter picture."  Years later audiences would be ravaged by Night of the Living Dead.  An independent production created entirely in Pennsylvania the film was helmed by Image Ten Productions, a group made up of director George Romero, writer John Russo, and a handful of other Pennsylvania natives.  Image Ten was mostly known for their locally created commercials, this foray into the horror film was a first for the group, none of them could have ever imagined the success it would go on to garner.

Night of the Living Dead gave us the current zombie, an undead flesh eater without the capabilities of speech or complex thought, they killed unforgivingly and would feast upon their victims.  Those unlucky enough to be bitten would eventually rise and join the unstoppable undead legion.  This film owes more to the Matheson novel I Am Legend than it does to the zombie films that came before it.  In Matheson's novel a scientist named Robert Neville is the sole survivor of a pandemic that has turned the population of the world into vampiric creatures.  During the day he scavenges for food and searches for a cure, but when the sun goes down he must barricade himself in his house while a group of the creatures surround his home and try to find a way in.  Inspired by the book Romero did his own spin on things combing horror elements with an underlying political commentary.  The film would meet great success from eager audiences dying to be frightened.

Romero's lifeless antagonists would eventually be labeled as "zombies," though you'd be hard pressed to find that word tossed around in any of the director's productions.  Romero directed a few different films before returning to the living dead world he created, his 1978 film Dawn of the Dead was set on a much more massive scale.  Dawn would be re-edited and re-titled by famed Italian director Dario Argento who would go on to release the film in Italy, "Zombi" would go onto inspire countless spaghetti-horror films.

At this point I'm just going to skip ahead a few decades...I could go on and on about zombie films of the 70's and 80's but we'll save that for a different time.  It is important to mention that the zombie film as we know it met it's pea in the 80's and pretty much died out by the mid 90's.  So what brought forth the zombie resurgence of recent years?  For that we're going to fast forward to 2002's release of Resident Evil.  While I didn't care much for this film I was in the minority, grossing nearly 20 million dollars during it's opening weekend the film would go onto be one of the first popular zombie films of the decade, it was soon followed by Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later.  Boyle's film, much like Romero's Night, was an entirely independent production.  It saw a UK release in 2002 before being picked up and distributed in the US by Fox Searchlight in 2003.  Boyle's film wasn't an instant hit, but it was one that would slowly gain momentum thanks to popular reviews and word of mouth.

2004 saw the release of Dawn of the Dead, a remake of the popular George Romero opus.  Though it shared the title and a few of the situations, gone was the rich social commentary and intelligent characters. Much like 28 Days Later's infected this film had "fast zombies."  While there have may have been running zombies before these two films, none were quite like this.  Compatible to rotting track stars, fast zombies certainly posed a threat.  This would be met with some serious internet controversy.

Just like that zombies were popular again.  George Romero was finally able to fund Dead Reckoning (now titled Land of the Dead) along with two more 'Dead' projects.  Resident Evil would see sequel after sequel.  The DTV market was flooded with remakes, re-imaginings, and other low-budget living dead projects.  Over in the Literary world Max Brooks' World War Z would see release and the rights were quickly snatched up in by Brad Pitt's production company Plan B Entertainment.  While Pitt and company would spend years working on this project the zombie market would flourish, in 2010 AMC would shatter records with the television debut of The Walking Dead.   Now in 2013 the undead have never been more popular.  AMC's show is still pulling in the ratings, there's toys, commercials, comics, glassware, ghouls are cool once again.

Which brings us to this weekend.  On Friday Jun 21st the 200 million dollar World War Z would debut...Everything has pretty much lead up to this, the biggest most expensive zombie film in history.  So how did it fare?  As to be expected the film owes more to the kinetic fast paced zombies of 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead '04 than it does to the shambling Romero ghouls.  Everything in this film is intensified tenfold.  The infection takes hold of a person within 10 seconds turning them into a mindless zombie hellbent on destruction and spreading the plague.  Brad Pitt is Gerry Lane, the UN's most coveted investigator who sets out to discover the origins of this disease in hopes of finding a cure.

The scope is epic, the aerial shots featuring 1000's of zombies wreaking havoc are total eye candy- stuff we've always dreamed of seeing in a zombie film. Sadly though, the budget behind these scenes also happens to be the movie's downfall.  At 200 million dollars there's a lot at stake.  This isn't a simple slot machine gamble, a risk this high can make or break a company.  Because of the budget certain provisions were created in attempting to guarantee success.  The most obvious is the PG-13 rating.   While zombie films have never been afraid of showing gore, World War Z is almost bloodless.  There are a few bite marks, scratches, and one scene of shrapnel piercing skin, but the gut munching so prevalent in Romero's universe and The Walking Dead TV show is no where to be found.  Hands are lopped off and skulls are crushed, but it's all done off screen giving the movie a neutered feel.

The other obvious head scratcher is the route the film goes, it's an entirely different entity when compared to Brooks' novel. This isn't necessarily a bad thing as some books cannot be translated 100%.  But the differences are so vast, it's almost like the company paid a million dollars for the title on the cover, not the content found in the pages.

The conclusion of the film is different.  I left wanting a more definitive end to the story.  I enjoyed World War Z, I wasn't expecting to either.  Given the rumblings of production issues along with the apparent 7 week reshoot, I feared the worst.  What I got was a summer action film with a strong opening and a so-so ending.  I'm sure one could easily pick this movie apart, but what's the point?  Just like Romero's films, it's a product of it's time.  A generation of people who want fast cuts, shaky cameras, and an action-filled story.  My best advice is to sit back and enjoy the pretty visuals.