NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
In the past month – and, indeed, every month for several years – I have seen films which derive wholly from Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist and Jaws. For the record, this month’s crop was World War Z, The Last Exorcism Part II and Bait … but every month seems to yield similar efforts, ranging in budget and quality and entertainment factor all across the spectrum. There’s a difference between sub-genres like vampire movies or ghost stories or even Frankensteinian mad science which have extensive pre-cinema folkloric-literary antecedents, and sub-genres that can be traceable back to a Patient Zero of ‘60s/’70s movie horror. I can’t help but feel that the persistence of these derivatives signals a severe lack of new ideas/material. The Exorcist and Jaws were books before they were movies –okay, so The Exorcist is just a Catholic remake of The Dybbuk (watch that vein in Mark Kermode’s head throb at that) – but Night of the Living Dead, influence of I Am Legend aside, was only a movie. The most influential horror film of all time, perhaps, but the nature of its influence has changed. In the 1970s, George Romero’s film inspired other filmmakers to make movies which were as transgressive, daring or socially-engaged as Night of the Living Dead. By now, his spiralling universe has directly led to comedies from Shaun of the Dead to Zombieland, a slew of remakes and imitations, comics/TV franchise The Walking Dead (I much prefer the BBC’s In the Flesh) and many, many direct-to-DVD/cable zombie apocalypses.
Book spin-offs began with the novelisations of the original films – screenwriter John Russo novelised Night of the Living Dead and wrote a sequel novel, Return of the Living Dead, which was loosely adapted into the 1985 film – and took off with John Skipp and Craig Spector’s Book of the Dead shared world collections set in Romero’s universe. Declaration of interest – my ‘Amerikanski Dead at the Moscow Morgue’ was written for Craig and John, though it was published by Al Sarrantonio in another collection when the Book of the Dead series was on hiatus. Max Brooks’ World War Z is the most prominent of many novels, series and collections (I contributed a few bits to Stephen Jones’ The Mammoth Book of Zombie Apocalypse too) that essentially footnote Night of the Living Dead. Among the many films to inhabit or try to inhabit what has become an open source world – something the much screwed-over creators of Night will have mixed feelings about – was Colin, a British zombie apocalypse film reputedly made for £45. If that was the cheapest zombie movie ever made – which, judging by what I’ve seen, it might well not be – then Marc Forster’s film of Brooks’ novel is the most expensive. It weighs in at North of $200,000,000, more than seven times the previous record-holder, the $28,000,000 remake of Dawn of the Dead. By all accounts, it’s been a troubled production – with a rewritten script and reshot ending (Matthew Michael Carnahan, J.Michael Straczynski, Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof all had a hand in various drafts of the script) and ratings restrictions that have led to the most bloodless zombie apocalypse ever (really, ParaNorman is more gruesome). So, after all the build-up, the globe-trotting, the rethinks and the reworked campaigns, what about the film … ?
Um, well, it’s okay – mostly. Though it may end up as the test case for why it’s impossible to make a really big-budget horror film. The plot is familiar: a mystery plague turns dead people into mindless, horribly emaciated biters (if not eaters) of the living. Society collapses as scientists, soldiers and innocents try to keep out the monsters, stay uninfected, come up with a cure/vaccine and (in a bit as old as War of the Worlds and as hokey as Hollywood can make it) get the hero back together with his family. Ahhh – families; with the world overrun by zombies, who cares about single people? They can die or have their hands chopped off or be zombified and no one gives a hoot, but when Brad Pitt talks about wifey and kids Hollywood thinks audiences go misty and stay on his side. The opening, set in Philadelphia, has a cluster of cases go viral downtown during a traffic jam, which rapidly escalates into an end of the world. This shows what money can buy – finally, someone has the budget to stage the mass panic and chaos engulfing a whole city which other zombie apocalypse films have had to imply (Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead staged its similar scene in a suburb). Later, there’s an astonishing bit with swarming zombies piling up like ants to overwhelm Israel’s defensive walls. For a moment, you worry that Israel’s real-world defence policies are being endorsed – but the big wall is as useless a gesture as North Korea’s mass tooth-pulling anti-zombie program. With a trace of satire, overloud praying leads to the destruction of the country.
Our hero is family man Gerry Lane, a retired UN investigator and Brad Pittish macho yet sensitive guy with urban survival skillz and a cute, if sidelined, wife (Mireille Enos, of the US remake of The Killing). He has tickets on a helicopter out of New York, where he’s fled after Philly, for his whole clan (I forget how many kids he has, which shows how much I care about his family – though I remember he has time to adopt an orphan during the crisis). The Lanes are safe on an aircraft carrier or in a Canadian fortified harbour, just so long as he goes back in the field with a bacteriology boffin in the hope of finding a cure. This means a round-the-world trip to a rainwashed nighttime South Korean air base, the walled country of Israel and a World Health Organisation research centre outside Cardiff (mention of the last got laughs at the London screening). In each location, interesting people – David Morse as a rogue CIA agent, Daniella Kertesz as an Israeli soldier girl (who gets to suffer an emergency handectomy very like the one Edward Judd performed on Peter Cushing in Island of Terror), and Peter Capaldi, Mortitz Bleibtreu and Ruth Negga as the Cardiff whitecoats – show up but get less to do than you’d like because Pitt is doing all the heavy lifting. The boffin (Elyes Gabel) trips over and shoots himself, which would be the sort of cutting irony Romero uses in The Crazies if he’d been established as a possible major character beforehand. Luckily, Gerry notices unrelated incidents around the world that lead him to jump to a conclusion about how to become invisible to zombies – which is exactly the same as a sub-plot in Stephen R.Boyett’s ‘Like Pavlov’s Dogs’ in Book of the Dead – and that leads to one of the silliest happy endings in years.
Despite the lack of gore and tendency to spotlight the odd hero zombie without much thought given to the masses, WWZ delivers on suspense/horror sequences. You want a chase through an apartment building to the roof, with a hovering helicopter? A zombie outbreak on a crowded plane? Here they are. It’s perverse, given the resources available, that the last act is the sort of enclosed horror sequence which almost every cheaper zombie movie goes for as Brad Hero has to make his way through a research facility overrun with walking dead in order to get a mcguffin from a secure storage. It could be a sequence from Resident Evil: Cardiff – or, more to the point, an episode of Torchwood. It has its jumps and look-out-behind-you suspense, but still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s established that these zombies are attracted to sound (twice, inconveniently ringing phones cause mini-crises), but no one thinks to make a noise where Brad Pitt isn’t to distract them. Like a lot of very expensive films, it suffers from too much money: deep budget pockets enable indecision, the need to secure a family friendly PG-13 rating (yayyy, families!) overrides any urge to be too horrific (imagine if you were making a comedy and the studio kept telling you to make it less funny so kids could see it) and casting Brad Pitt means anyone else is just along for the ride (I’d swear Negga – who is terrific in the low-budget Irish monster movie Isolation – doesn’t even get out of her chair while playing an unnamed scientist). It’s not a complete disaster like, say, Battlefield Earth, or a bloated bore like, say, Battleship. I liked it more than the Will Smith assault on I Am Legend, for one. But I’m still not sure why we needed a $200,000,000 zombie movie.