“The earth belongs to the living and not to the dead,” Thomas Jefferson once counseled, albeit musing on generational obligations rather than zombie property rights. The undead antagonists of World War Z would have bitten his face off and used his powdered wig as a napkin. For the living are decidedly on the back foot in Marc Forster’s disaster epic, an adaptation of Max Brooks’s 2006 novel in which a mysterious virus transforms its hosts into undead killing machines. The pandemic recruits an ever-swelling infantry of zombies who conquer continents. Only a few pockets of human resistance, led by jaded United Nations operative Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), remain.
World War Z is by far the most interesting genre film of the year. It is, and this really does have to be seen to be believed, a right-wing zombie-disaster flick in which our hero is an advocate of UN reform, the U.S. military is noble and selfless, the threat spreads because of lax airport security, and the security policies of the state of Israel are held up as the model for saving the world. There are Emergency Committee for Israel ads less neoconservative than this.
The zombie myth stalks the intersection between ethnography and popular culture, a macabre fascination with Haitian and West African religious practices developing into the dark fantasies of the pulp writer H.P. Lovecraft and the Pittsburgh moviemaker George Romero. The parallel with Judeo-Christian doctrines of the afterlife is obvious: Biblical resurrection promises life after death, but zombies enjoy the sacrament of eternal death. They are soulless bodies freed from the obligations of religion and the strictures of temporal moral codes.
It is that sense of casting off social structures that has made zombie fiction so appealing to the left. Zombie movies originated as apolitical penny dreadfuls, with the rare exception of Jacques Tourneur’s gently liberal I Walked with a Zombie, but the genre took a radical turn in 1968 with Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The hordes of the undead became a metaphor for the lumpenproletariat, harboring the potential if not the consciousness for revolution, and the forces of order were racist rednecks who gunned down the movie’s African-American hero in the closing minutes. Robin Wood, a Marxist crank but a formidable film historian, detected in Romero’s allegorical broadsides against the nuclear family, capitalism, and the military an effort to “demolish, systematically, the central structures of what we still call our civilization.” He thought all that a selling point.
World War Z reconnects with the inherent conservatism of the zombie myth, which has always channeled a deep, unspoken fear, not of the undead but of the living, not of brain-devouring ghouls but of the potential for ghoulish behavior inside ourselves. This critique of human fallibility, unusually fuddy-duddy for Hollywood, is the root of conservatism: Liberty without order is license, and license will eventually destroy liberty as surely as it vanquished order.
That is why there is no happy ending to World War Z. The credits roll mid-action with the guardians of civilization celebrating a small victory but nonetheless outnumbered and outflanked by their undead tormentors. In a somber voiceover, our hero intones: “If you can fight, fight. Be prepared for anything. Our war has just begun.” The filmmakers were perhaps paying homage to the “watch the skies” monologue that closes the early Cold War frightfest The Thing from Another World (1951), but the rhetoric is unmistakably post-9/11 in tone. There is no self-doubt in the war on zombies: We are the good guys, they are the bad guys; now let’s beat them to death with a shovel.
The theme of civilization under siege is brought to vivid, metaphoric life in a subplot that boasts what is surely cinema’s first twin exploration of zombies and Zionism. Israel, we learn halfway through the action, is the only country not infected by the contagion, because it acted expeditiously on an intercepted cable from an Indian general warning of an undead uprising. The government erects a wall separating Jerusalem from the West Bank, not unlike the real-life structure erected to fend off suicide bombers during the second Palestinian terror war, and it manages to halt the spread of the virus. If this seems an overreaction to the implausible ramblings of a foreign military officer, some valiant exposition tells us that the Israelis, scarred by their unpreparedness and near defeat in the Yom Kippur war, now act decisively on every threat, however incredible. (The filmmakers know nothing about Israeli politics. If the Mossad ever intercepted such a cable, before any security wall could be built, the chief of the general staff and defense minister would squabble over who should take credit, Haaretz would editorialize against the hiring of non-union construction workers, and Peace Now would petition the Supreme Court claiming historic zombie ownership of Hebron.)
Israel, however, is too good for its own good and throws open Fortress Jerusalem, welcoming the Palestinians into a happy-clappy one-state solution where Jews and Arabs link arms, wave Israeli and Palestinian flags, and serenade the holy city with ecstatic songs of peace. Things go awry when “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu,” anthem of the tambourine-thumpers, is cranked out over the loudspeakers and the orgiastic cries of “peace will come upon us” bring the undead hordes over the wall to fress upon everyone in sight. Imagine a J-Street convention with a happier ending.
As a satire of the kumbaya merchants of the Jewish left who could see Israel pushed back to the shore of the Mediterranean and still call for compromise, World War Z is cutting, breathtakingly so. Not only does an ingathering to the land of Israel offer world salvation, but Israel’s olive branch to its enemies, abandoning historical destiny for mushy universalism, also leads to destruction. I suspect much of this subtext is unintentional, but, either because of ideological confusion in the screenplay or a tenuous grasp of Middle Eastern politics, the movie is remarkably conducive to a neoconservative reading.
World War Z isn’t a great movie, but it represents a welcome resurrection of the zombie as lethal predator after the campy irony of Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004) and Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009). The climax, in a besieged World Health Organization clinic, contains moments of high tension and genuine terror. Much of this, however, is undermined by the production values: huge, dazzling, and depressingly hollow, an object lesson in how budgetary extravagance can smother rather than kindle creativity. The budget, $190 million, is ludicrous for a genre picture, even one fronted by Brad Pitt, and speaks to a growing trend of movies trying too hard to be loved, throwing ludicrous sums of money and assaultive CGI at moviegoers in hopes of browbeating them into a prosthetic pleasure. But audiences are responding to this marauding, Godzilla-takes-Tokyo moviemaking style; they no longer expect to be entertained and will settle for being overwhelmed. We saw this in the summer’s Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, and Fast and Furious 6. They were soulless. They were bromidic. They made $2.5 billion between them.
Criticism is a blunt tool when ranged against the adrenaline-pumping kinetics and recession-baiting finances of the monster blockbuster. World War Z makes us think, and in an unexpected way, but its aesthetics and economics point to developments that do not bode well for cinema.