CINEMA: News Weekly
Zombie tales reveal our innermost fears
, July 6, 2013
World War Z (rated M), a 3D thriller, is reviewed by Symeon Thompson.
World War Z is the current zombie apocalypse blockbuster. It’s even 3D! Yay, I always wanted to get that close to the walking dead.
Adapted from Max Brooks’ 2006 novel of the same name, World War Z is about the sudden infection of vast swathes of the populace, turning them into re-animated, flesh-eating corpses.
Brad Pitt stars in World War Z.
Paced and pointed, the movie focuses on the drama of the events, while making side-comments on the human condition.
The cinematography and sound-track serve the purpose of keeping the audience thrilled and engaged — including a dose of real emotion here and there to stop it from being solely a special-effects extravaganza.
Opening with a news collage, it then proceeds to follow Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a retired UN investigator, and his family, going about their daily odds and ends, until they’re stuck in a traffic-jam that gets overrun by ravening hordes.
After going through the usual “inhumanity of humanity when faced with crisis” trope, Gerry and his family, and another boy, are saved by Gerry’s former bosses, and taken to a US navy ship.
His bosses have a simple offer. Gerry will assist them in finding a way to deal with the zombies, or they will ship his family to a refugee camp. With such delicate motivations Gerry is sent off on a round-the-world trip, starting in South Korea, as the UN’s point man.
South Korea doesn’t go so well. Then there’s Jerusalem, where the Israeli strategy consists of constructing really, really big walls. Following Biblical precedents, loud noises and walls don’t mix, and let’s leave it at that, shall we? Then there’s more travelling and more things going on, but that would give the game away.
Zombies are a fascinating cultural phenomenon. The idea comes from yarns about Voodoo priests turning the dead into their slaves. As such it became a mainstay of classic Hollywood horror, and even featured with James Bond in Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die (novel: 1954; movie: 1973).
In 1968 George A. Romero made Night of the Living Dead, after which Baron Samedi and Voodoo largely disappeared from the scene, to be replaced by the peculiarly scientific “modern” zombie. This zombie was now the result of a virus, one that kills the host, but somehow animates the body and is driven to feed on human flesh.
Ever since, zombies have acted as the leading “what-if” for considering global pandemics and the inhumanity that results from crises. They provide a way to comment on science and technology, absolute government, and what happens to communities under pressure — and all within a framework that allows for liberal violence and all manner of pyrotechnics.
Everyone wins, from the teenager keen for some guts and gore to the political ideologue and high-brow social critic. Zombies have become so mainstream that the US Centers for Disease Control even use them as a metaphor for what might happen during a pandemic and how to prepare the populace. I’ve even heard of a Journal of Zombie Studies, thanks to a paper given by Greg Melleuish about academics and zombies, at a conference a few years ago.
Professor Melleuish made some further remarks, which I’ve had to dredge out of my memory, so please forgive their lack of adequate referencing.
He said that zombie yarns rely, by and large, on a Hobbesian view of humanity. Human life in nature is “poor, nasty, brutish and short”. They hinge on the idea that we are so self-driven that we’ll sacrifice anything and everything for our own survival.
This view is one that drives modern politics on both sides, either softened by Locke’s very English liberal compromise — where one stops at the point he likes and pretends any further consequences don’t exist; or hardened by the weirdnesses that result from those who read a few lines of Nietzsche or Foucault and think that everything can be reduced to a power-play.
But is this the case? Upon examining communities that are “savage”, one sees violence, but one also sees honour, rituals and strict moral codes — the very things that liberalism considers unimportant.
The modern state needs Hobbes to rationalise the power it wields, because it can then cheerfully claim itself as the only thing holding off the apocalypse — because, of course, the idea that individuals might be somehow responsible for their actions, or that absolute notions of right and wrong exist, and that we are hard-wired with them, is supposedly absurd.
World War Z does an admirable job in not getting bogged down in social commentary, nor overloading the audience with blood and gore. It emphasises the humanity of a crisis, rather than the inhumanity, without neglecting the need for difficult decisions.
The human condition allows for horrors and haloes, and this movie shows the significance of blood for both — as food, and as family.
Symeon Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).