The Stiff: Chapter 1: Page 24 (Plus: World War Z Review)

The Stiff: Chapter 1: Page 24 (Plus: World War Z Review)

Sorry there was no update on Monday; I was having some computer trouble and couldn’t access the files on my desktop, which includes all the “Stiff” pages. It’s working again, so I’ll upload pages today, Thursday and Friday. And if you haven’t heard it yet, listen to me on The Double Shadow!

In other news, last weekend I saw “World War Z”. I have to confess I’d REALLY been looking forward to this. I enjoyed Max Brooks’ book (and his original “The Zombie Survival Guide” even more) and, while it was obvious the fast-zombies decision was just the result of some movie executive who hadn’t read the book saying “Bah! Slow zombies are boring!”, I was really interested to see how the movie would turn out. I like slow zombies, but I don’t have any prejudice against fast zombies either; listening to know-it-all nerds give stupid explanations of why zombies can’t run is the modern equivalent of listening to nerds in the 1950s explain why aliens need to be green and bug-eyed. They’re simply different moods, and neither one is superior. “Return of the Living Dead” may actually still be the best fast-zombies movie, although the “Dawn of the Dead” remake was good, and so was “28 Days Later” despite the predictable third-act Idiot Plot. (“28 Weeks Later”, on the other hand, had Idiot Plot Syndrome throughout, with its incoherent portrayal of completely inept anti-zombie precautions. You’ve already been through this once, people!!)

So I was looking forward to seeing how “World War Z” did it with a huge budget. Absent the multiple-perspectives and Studs Terkel faux-documentary approach of the book, the movie plays out as a standard one-heroic-guy-saves-everyone story. There’s nothing innately wrong with that, although it requires a completely different approach from the book, in which there are no magic bullets, no antidote, just a long hard slog of zombie-fighting in which everyone has to pitch in and do their part. As I’ve written elsewhere, zombie stories tend to be anti-authority and have a very dim view of human nature, so a zombie book like “World War Z” where organized government and the military are actually GOOD things, is quite exceptional among zombie films… and yet, of course, in the movie, all those collective forces are ultimately shown to be powerless without the awesomeness that is Brad Pitt. Oh well. That’s Hollywood. Maybe it makes sense thematically (and it’s certainly uber-American) that the faceless collective zombie hordes can only be stopped by One Individual: one man vs. everybody.

The movie is front-loaded: the best scenes are in the first two-thirds, and the ending is an anticlimax. The squirming hordes of CGI zombies look great, nevermind the haters on the Internet; it was one of the things that drew me to the film, this powerful imagery of zombies completely stripped of individuality, transformed into a seething blob. Unfortunately, almost all the CGI-zombie-mob moments are shown in the trailer; these scenes must have cost $100,000s a second because there’s so few of them. (Perhaps there’ll be more in the inevitable sequel, since they’ve presumably got all their zombie models and motion-capture down.)

As other bloggers have micro-analyzed, the movie was delayed because the final 30-40 minutes were completely rescripted and reshot. Frankly, it sounds like both versions had problems: the original, in which Brad Pitt is enslaved in Russia while his wife becomes a sex slave (or by-implication-future-sex-slave) in an American military camp, sounded more dramatic but the idea that his wife is just a hapless victim waiting to be rescued from rapey soldiers recalls the same mistakes of “28 Days Later.” The new ending, however, also sucks (except for the plane scene which is one of the best bits in the movie; too bad it’s spoiled in the trailer). Nevermind the ‘zombie antidote’ (sorta) plot point. Nevermind the idea to slow things down a bit in the ending, to switch from the global to the local, to have a smaller cast (and it certainly must have saved money). The problem with the ending isn’t just the magic antidote, nor the slower pace that doesn’t fit with the preceding 90 minutes, but the way they (mis)use the zombies. The zombies in this movie are scariest as a horde, when you can’t really see their faces (as whoever edited the trailers knew). In the new final act, when they show the zombified scientists shambling and bumbling around the lab, and when they show the African-American zombie gnashing its teeth and bugging its eyes behind the glass, it’s not scary: it’s funny. People in the theater laughed, myself included. (The one really good closeup shot of a zombie, incidentally, is the one of the soldier in the infirmary in Korea. Scary!) The zombies in the final act simply aren’t scary, on top of the fact that the zombies, who in the first 90 minutes run like the wind, bash through glass plates with their foreheads and clamber over walls, are now apparently stopped by a crappy barricade of benches. The “Dawn of the Dead” remake had the same problem: what do the zombies do when they’re not chasing people? Clumsily bumping and slouching around isn’t scary (unless maybe you’re a Japanese horror movie director and you really know how to get creepy body language out of your actors). Frankly, I think “28 Days Later” did it better: the scene in the church when the dormant zombies all simultaneously turn their heads and look at the hero is chilling. Maybe the zombies should just curl up like pillbugs and wait. Maybe they should just stand silently, like normal people, waiting and staring. Maybe they should all crawl over one another in a huge constantly moving naked pile, pressed up against the barricade they can’t breach, never tiring, never stopping. There’s many ways it could have been done better. The way they did it broke the mood of the film.

The lack of gore also hurt the film, although part of me is impressed they were able to make it at all. The restrictions on what you can show in a PG-13 movie nowadays are so strict (I miss the early ’80s days of PG flicks like “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and “The Beastmaster”), there’s barely a drop of blood even when Brad Pitt chops off a woman’s hand (off the edge of the screen, implied) or when zombies bite people (again: implied). I don’t think excessive gore is a requirement of zombie movies, or horror movies in general, but the movie barely establishes that the zombies are spreading the plague by biting people, or that they can only be killed with headshots, or any of that stuff…. I guess the audience is assumed to know it going in, huh? While it wasn’t as big as the movie’s other flaws, a little more blood certainly wouldn’t have hurt.

I wish the movie had shown more of the global scale of the zombie carnage. This is another nitpick, but I wanted more scenes of news broadcasts and international footage: I wanted to know what was going on outside the sphere of Brad Pitt and his family. Surely the survivors on the boat, and elsewhere, would have been glued to the Internet and TV, finding out where the zombies are, whether they’re advancing West across America like a massive flood, whether City X or Airport X is infested, who is dead, who is alive? There was more of this sort of thing in the trailer than in the actual film. (One cool exception was that they dared show footage from the Miami cannibal attack in the ominous title sequence… but hell, title sequences are practically a separate thing from the rest of the movie. Even Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla” had a good title sequence.) The movie didn’t have enough faith in the audience’s imagination to show the characters *talking* about zombies, discussing zombies, describing horrible offscreen events. Likewise, there could have been more use of real-world placenames. Of course, a movie that goes to Israel, Korea and Wales is a thousand times more international than most American films (at least it’s no “A Good Day to Die Hard”, where Americans go to another country, make fun of the language, kill all the named nationals and leave), but I still wanted more, I wanted enough imagination-food to picture what was going on in other places. I wanted something like SmartGlass for “Game of Thrones” so I could check imaginary-CNN and find out exactly where the zombies were every minute of the movie. -_- The movie infamously removed all references to China so that they could sell the film in China — we’re not even talking about the zombies ACTUALLY ORIGINATING in China like in the book, apparently just having the movie characters SPECULATE that the zombies originated in China is too much for the nationalistic Chinese censors. Pathetic, on both Hollywood’s and China’s side. The movie also seems to have removed references to the nuclear war between Pakistan and Iran which happens in the book; instead, Brad Pitt spots a nuclear explosion from the air, but the scene lasts all of five seconds and it’s never explained, they never say what country it’s in. So even showing bad stuff happening in Iran and Pakistan is too controversial for a Hollywood movie? Or did they just assume Americans don’t know where those places are, so why bother even naming them?

One political stance the movie ISN’T afraid to take, very faithfully out of the book, is the heavy pro-Israel slant of the middle act of the film. I have a lot of problems with the Israeli government, and it annoyed me a lot that both the book and the movie present Israel as basically the awesomest place on Earth: they’re militarily ultracompetent AND they’re such nice guys they even let in the poor Palestinians who are being besieged by zombies. (As if they’d ever do that!) Pro-Israeli bias is the default mode in Western media, but I’d at least thought that, like in the book, they might toss in a token Palestinian character and have some kind of “let’s all get over our differences and fight zombies, yay!” message (also cliched and misleading, but better) like in, say, “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.” (Plus zombies.) Instead, the word “Palestinian” isn’t even mentioned, the warm grandfatherly Israeli Mossad agent gets to give a potted speech with a completely one-sided version of Israeli history, and the hot IDF soldier is the 2nd awesomest person in the movie after Brad Pitt. I’m not the kind of person who’d object on principle to the depiction of hordes of squirming Palestinian zombies — horror is horror and is always based on the idea of fearing & demonizing The Other, and one can appreciate a visceral & emotional response while criticizing it on an intellectual or political level — I mean I enjoy the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft after all — but the Israel scenes definitely fail the “If the Jews were white and the Arabs were black, would it seem racist” test. Ironically, considering that Israel is often compared to apartheid South Africa, when Max Brooks writes the subplot about a South African war criminal released to fight the zombies (not in the movie, of course), it’s all presented as a “terrible necessity” and a “deal with the devil.” (Though this distinction was lost on some dumb Leftist reviewers of the movie, who found it reprehensible that Brooks presents an apartheid criminal in an even vaguely ‘useful’ light — as if “Silence of the Lambs” was pro-serial-killers because the heroes consult Hannibal Lecter.) The filmmakers could have broken from Brooks and presented Israel in a more morally ambiguous way — the West Bank barrier *does* seem like it’d be nice to keep out zombies, in addition to walling Palestinians off from Jewish neighborhoods — but instead, it’s just presented as the nicest place on Earth, like Disneyland. In fact, in the movie, it’s SO nice its niceness & compassion (almost?) does it in. Anyway, this sequence was lame. Everyone go read Joe Sacco’s comics “Palestine” and “Footnotes in Gaza” if you haven’t already. Also read Walter Greatshell’s “Xombies” trilogy. (No relation. I just like it.)

Politics aside, my final problem with “World War Z” is with the very final minutes of the ending. The film never finds anything to do with Brad Pitt’s family; instead of being hapless victims like they were in the first draft of the script, they’re simply irrelevant for the final 90 minutes. Then, (SPOILER) the movie ends with a freeze-frame of Brad Pitt reunited with his family, accompanied by cheerful narration by Pitt, essentially saying “There’s lots of zombies still to fight, let’s get to it! There’s going to be a sequel!” I can’t imagine much worse ways to end this movie. Like the film version of the “The Road” compared to Cormac McCarthy’s original book, a subtle difference in tone, combined with obtrusive narration, really f*cks up what could have been a genuine, earned emotional moment.

It’s easy to nitpick and pick things apart after the fact, but how would I have changed “World War Z” while still keeping it a running-zombies movie? The theme of the movie is essentially individualism vs. collectivism (AMERICA!! FUCK YEAH!!), so perhaps it would have been rewarding, and interesting, for the final act to have involved some friend or colleague (or family member) of Brad Pitt’s being zombified. The fight to ‘save’ one zombie — to find some important person among the masses of zombies, to pluck a single individual out of those seething hordes, perhaps to get a clue, or perhaps with the promise of curing them in some way? — would have been an interesting contrast to the previous 100 minutes of the movie as an ongoing escalation of zombie numbers, an increasing weight of zombie tissue pressing against the walls of the world, clambering up the walls, swamping the boats. Or, if the point is that Brad Pitt is a family guy (since the moviemakers didn’t think we, the audience, cared enough about the fate of humanity in the abstract) perhaps he has to leave the world behind and return to his family’s side, saying to hell with everybody else, abandoning the world to save his wife and daughters just a little longer? Alas, it’s foolish to expect any kind of emotional depth — let alone a dark ending like a J.G. Ballard “embrace the apocalypse” zombie-Stockholm-syndrome thing — from a Hollywood movie with a $200+ million budget, and I’m sure the narrative options for the movie just kept shrinking and shrinking as the budget and revenue expectations grew and grew. Still, the two things I respect about “World War Z” are (1) the 30 or so seconds of zombie-horde SFX and (2) that it doesn’t degenerate into a cynical “humans vs. humans” conflict like “28 Days Later” and “The Walking Dead” so many other zombie films; instead, like it promises on the tin, this is a heroic movie about how humans (especially Brad Pitt) are good & heroic at heart, and the story is “humans vs. zombies” throughout. I just wish it had been a little smarter about it. And less rah-rah-Israel.

NEXT UPDATE: Thursday!


Discussion (2)¬

  1. Gaze of Providence says:

    Just like my chinese cartoons!

Comment¬