World War Z: Massive Zombie Blockbuster, Egregious Abuse of Source Material

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World War Z: Massive Zombie Blockbuster, Egregious Abuse of Source Material

When Brad Pitt’s World War Z bulled its way into theaters a decade ago this June, it carried with it the status of a true anomaly. It was the biggest, grandest encapsulation of the zombie genre that had ever been attempted, and indeed it remains so to this day–even in comparison with something like HBO’s The Last of Us, the $190 million budget of World War Z was somehow almost twice as much as the cost of that show’s entire first season. We’re talking about a project that was by far the most expensive piece of zombie fiction ever conceived, and also the highest grossing, raking in more than $540 million worldwide. By most any metric, that would make it the most successful zombie film of all time. All that, despite the fact that World War Z is also one of the most shameless, egregious abuses of pristine source material in recent Hollywood history. Ten years removed, it’s a fitting time to look back and gauge where things went wrong in this adaptation, and why even with its “success,” we never saw a long-rumored sequel.

Author Max Brooks published his influential faux history/epistolary novel World War Z in 2006, in the wake of films such as Shaun of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead (2004) and Land of the Dead (and The Walking Dead comic) reviving some measure of public interest in zombie fiction, which wasn’t exactly in a great place in the 1990s and early 2000s. Striking a much more mature tone than his earlier, comedy-inflected Zombie Survival Guide, Brooks’ book offered a sobering, extraordinarily wide-ranging overview of what human life might look like as it claws its way back from the brink of a great calamity, one that just so happened to be a devastating plague of the living dead. The book lacks a traditional narrative–instead it’s a collection of fictional interviews with people around the world, each detailing aspects of how they survived or contributed during the zombie crisis a decade earlier. Revisiting the book today, Brooks’ deconstruction of human fallibility and governmental incompetence rings all the more true in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic we all endured–most of the author’s conjecture on how the zombie plague could realistically spread and be aided by bad actors and willful neglect for public safety now feels especially prescient, and you can imagine someone writing a piece just like World War Z about the COVID years.

To be sure, there had been plenty of zombie fiction before World War Z, but where Brooks’ text makes itself unforgettable is in the breadth of his considerations, tackling segments of society you’ve never seen depicted in a zombie movie. Soldiers and researchers? Those perspectives are to be expected in a zombie story. But Brooks explored the roles that might be played by seemingly every link in the great human chain–suburban parents and children, logistics experts, teenage Japanese otaku, cargo pilots, mercenaries, Hollywood filmmakers, even astronauts who happen to be in orbit when the zombie outbreaks begin. He goes out of his way to make an allegorical but inherently silly premise–the zombie apocalypse–seem as grounded and genuinely feasible as it could possibly be. His efforts root us in the mundane, everyday humanity of each character. The lauded audiobook adaptation shows just how well the format works.

And from its opening moments, it’s all too clear that director Marc Forster’s tepid film version of World War Z won’t be doing any of this. Gone is the slow encroaching anxiety of the plague as it gradually spreads through the globe over the course of years in Brooks’ book. Gone is the vast government conspiracy to cover up the severity of the problem, and the profiteering fake placebo medication intended to placate the American populace into complacency while the people in charge deal with the problem. In the film, the zombies seemingly spring up overnight on a global basis, a genesis point that admittedly has more in common with the original George Romero movies that inspired all modern zombie fiction, but a dramatic departure from the careful consideration that the novel gives as to how society could ever let the problem become one where the entire species is in jeopardy. Everything in the film has been rushed and compressed, jumping straight from “these news reports are weird, huh?” to “THE PRESIDENT IS DEAD AND SOCIETY HAS CRUMBLED” in the space of about 12 hours. We’re robbed of the tragedy that Brooks conveys, the sense that this all could have been prevented had people in authority come together to tackle the emerging problem in an earnest way, rather than downplaying and hiding it. The film’s zombies spring seemingly out of the ether, rampaging so unstoppably that it removes the audience’s inclination to even bother assigning blame–because who could have hoped to stop a problem that rears to life so suddenly? The critique of governmental inefficiency is entirely lost.

What the film gives us instead is a conventional Hero to focus on–a genuine, red-blooded American Movie Star in the form of Brad Pitt’s Gerry Lane, a “Former United Nations WMD investigator” who is immediately tagged by the remnants of the government, for reasons never adequately explained, as the one guy they can trust to track down the “source” of the plague. We’re told that by finding the “origin,” the eggheads in R&D can hopefully whip up a vaccine or cure for the remaining 10% of humanity that hasn’t apparently been wiped out in the last 24 hours–if this seems difficult to swallow, don’t worry, it never actually comes to pass. The source of the virus is ultimately of zero importance at all, merely serving as an excuse for Lane to jet from one expensive locale to another, expendable crew of Navy SEALs in tow. Wherever he goes, chaos quickly follows, as if his arrival somehow inevitably brings disaster with it, most notably in the Jerusalem sequence wherein the city’s protective wall is immediately overwhelmed by army ant-like zombies literal moments after Pitt arrives to marvel at it.

It’s all a far cry from the solemn, contemplative stories told by Brooks in World War Z–tales like that of a downed pilot making her way back to civilization through a zombie-infested swamp, a Hollywood film director making morale-boosting zombie propaganda movies, or a rogue Chinese nuclear submarine crew setting up a tropical refuge safe from the undead on a remote South Seas island. The film has no time for these stories of others; all that matters is Lane’s vague attempt to get to the bottom of what is happening, in order to keep his own family safe from equally vague danger back home.

Of course, it’s easy to imagine how the whole thing might have been salvaged, or at least presented in a way far more faithful to the book: Pitt could have simply played “Max Brooks” as he appears in the novel, an archivist traveling around the globe in the wake of the zombie conflict, where he would interview individuals about how they served in “World War Z.” This would functionally have made the film into an anthology, and allowed us to see the key moments of Brooks’ book brought to life, such as the U.S. military’s ill-fated attempt to take on the entire zombified population of New York City at the Battle of Yonkers. But it wouldn’t have allowed Pitt to play the traditional Hollywood protagonist, and we all know how studios feel about unconventional story structure …

It’s natural to assume that this more faithful version of World War Z was never even an option, but the real tragedy is that the original version of the script, written by comic author J. Michael Straczynski, reportedly did hew much closer to the structure of its source material. Even Brooks approved, saying in an interview that Staczynski had “found a way to tie it all together. The last draft I read was amazing.” We’ll never know what that version of World War Z would have looked like, but we do know that said script was essentially totally discarded in subsequent rewrites by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof, leading to Brooks’ assessment becoming much more pessimistic. By the time the film was approaching its release date in 2013, Brooks–who still hadn’t seen it–was essentially washing his hands of the whole mess, telling fans of the book not to expect an adaptation that had anything in common with his work.

In truth, the post-production of World War Z was so fraught that it may have been improbable we ended up with a semi-coherent film at all. Both Lindelof and then Goddard were brought in after principal photography had already wrapped, entirely rewriting the third act of the film and discarding such elements as a 12-minute, large-scale battle sequence set in Russia–a location that is never even visited or mentioned in the existing theatrical cut. Instead, the new and considerably more modest third act sees Gerry Lane dropped into the internal drama of a germ research lab in Wales, where he stumbles into a solution that may allow the surviving humans to at least camouflage themselves from the undead. Just another reminder: The “original source” of the infection being sought for the first two thirds of the film is never mentioned again … potentially because it was meant to be in mainland China, as in Brooks’ book, and studio Paramount feared that such an insinuation could hurt the film’s chances at getting past Chinese censors to court that lucrative overseas market. They ultimately weren’t far off from the truth: The film was indeed rejected in China even after the edits, making its $540 million worldwide box office all the more impressive.

There was certainly no shortage of voices saying as much at the time, but it’s safe to say that although a more faithful adaptation of World War Z as a feature film was certainly possible, it was never the optimal format for capturing the story Brooks so carefully laid out in his book. The anthology format suggested by the book would have instead been a natural fit for a premium cable TV series or miniseries, with each episode following a central archivist–the Max Brooks character–as he sits down with a survivor somewhere around the globe to record their tale, vividly told via splashy flashbacks. Imagine the production values of The Last of Us, used in the service of that kind of prestige zombie anthology, rather than ultimately spending $190 million to rewrite an ending featuring Brad Pitt creeping around an empty germ lab for 30 minutes. Imagine the character actors who could have flourished within each zombie story! This format is so obvious in hindsight that I find myself holding out hope that perhaps World War Z will simply be rebooted in this way a few years down the line, allowing us to forget that the film ever happened.

Because rest assured, the long-planned film sequel is almost certainly never coming to fruition at this point–a sequel that had David Fincher of all people attached to it as a director as recently as 2018. The ongoing Chinese film ban on supernatural content such as zombies or ghosts was bandied about as a reason for why Paramount ultimately axed the project in 2019, but a more fundamental reason isn’t exactly hard to grasp: Despite being the top-grossing “zombie movie” in history, World War Z made almost no lasting impression on either the genre or film in general in the last decade. It was a sparkly bauble, a completely generic and inconsequential zombie blockbuster that was discarded from public memory as soon as it left theaters, never to be referenced again. Watching it again today, it’s not even all that clear where the massive budget was spent, aside from a couple effects-heavy but relatively short setpieces in Philadelphia and Jerusalem. Most of the money looks to have just vanished into thin air, like the pretext for Gerry Lane’s mission.

No, if World War Z is remembered for anything today, it’s rightly for the grave disservice it did to Max Brooks’ book, a source text that could likely be adapted into an incredible piece of zombie media in the right hands. What we got instead was a cinematic boondoggle–an obnoxiously expensive star vehicle for an actor and studio without any genuine interest in the story they were adapting. Perhaps some day, another take will come along to do justice to Brooks’ vision, or more likely we’ll just have to settle for the spiritual companionship of something like The Last of Us. The true horror geeks will continue waiting for someone to wake the epic zombie conflict of World War Z from the dead.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film content.

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