“World War Z” – It turns out that dropping the Z-bomb isn’t that bad after all…

Although I was initially convinced that writing up “World War Z” should present itself as rather straightforward, in reality it took me a while to get my thoughts right in order to do that. Perhaps I didn’t have my own mind quite made up about it in the first place, but more so because there is so many things this film is not, and it seems to bother the general public. I, on the other hand, had a good time watching it and I believe I ought to address these points of contention whilst reviewing.

What I think is the major problem with “World War Z” is the fact it suffers from a major case of ‘shyamalanitis’ with so many people having an opinion about it without even having seen it in the first place; and no wonder if it flops big time, because that’s what happens to films that are superseded by vindictive gossip. Therefore it is all the more difficult to write something coherent about it without falling victim to any such nonsense.

In that spirit, I think it wise to start with the facts. “World War Z” is a very loose adaptation of a best-selling novel by Max Brooks and the reason I (as much as everybody else) say ‘loose’ is because the book as it stands is virtually unfilmable. I have to admit I still have 80 pages to finish it myself, but I think even at this stage I am qualified enough to say that no-one in their right mind would even attempt to adapt this fantastic book verbatim and expect a return on their investment. For those of you who don’t know (and you should know because it’s a terrific read) the book is not a novel per se, but more of a fictional collection of interviews with various people who lived through the zombie war, where the author assumes the role of a UN analyst tasked with preparing a report on the war and its implications nearly a decade after it had ended. In short, reading “World War Z” provides an ultimately immersive experience where we see the war and its atrocities through the eyes of survivors without much help from the narrator. Thus, slowly but inevitably unravels the horrifying picture of the world struggling with the undead and once the pieces fall into place, the emotional impact of the book is truly magnificent.

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Maybe the book needed to be left alone… But we all know this is not how the game is played. If a book sells in millions it is simply a matter of time before someone picks it up for a film. And whoop-dee-doo, wouldn’t you know, the script had to undergo a string of re-writes, overhauls and what-not before the filming could start. And not only that: after the film had been basically done and paid for, Paramount halted the post-production and the entire ending was re-shot. I’ll divulge more details on that a bit further on, but in the end “World War Z” cost way more money than expected (the re-shooting itself took nearly $30M) and as far as 6 months before release the buzz on the grape vine was pretty damn clear on how much of a stink-bomb it was going to become.

Nevertheless, the final product directed by Marc Forster (“Monster’s Ball”, “Finding Neverland”, “Quantum of Solace”) and written by a gazillion people has finally hit the screens and – thank heavens – is nothing like the book. Side note, I wonder how many book adaptations are there which completely disregarded the source material and still got away with it… Now that I think about it, I think I would have been seriously disappointed in “World War Z”, had it remained true to the original with the documentary style and fragmented narrative, because it would have certainly lost the impact and failed to convey the book’s message. What it is instead is a story set in the greater world outlined in the book (with only a handful of scenes or characters taken from it). In it, a former UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family find themselves in the midst of a global outbreak of a deadly virus that turns people into bloodthirsty ghouls. After they seek refuge on an aircraft carrier, Gerry is asked to help solve the origin of the pandemic (in exchange for his family’s safety). If he can find the ‘patient zero’ or what’s left of him, then the dwindling humanity might have a fighting chance in developing a cure. And off he goes, surrounded by a garnish of NAVY Seals he travels the world to look for answers, but in reality to give us – the viewers – a chance to see how a zombie apocalypse would look like on global scale.

In light of the film’s sub-par score on Rotten Tomatoes and some dreadful reviews, I shall say the following: “World War Z” is actually not that bad, especially when put in context of the zombie genre in general. There’s nothing more stale and overworked than the zombie horror and up until lately I think there was very little to be done with it without being overly repetitive. It has gotten to a point that introducing a small gimmick in a zombie film was deemed perfectly enough for it to be considered fresh, modern, or even visionary. Need I remind you, how the world collectively wet itself after Danny Boyle had introduced the fast, rabid zombie? In terms of genre freshness, “28 days later” was basically that with a healthy amount of Boyle genius, but apart from being just a very good movie, “28 days later” was just a zombie horror with fast zombies. Then, you might recall “Zombieland” – another fine addition to the genre, as regarded by critics, but the only thing it did, was to introduce good comedy. Finally, you have “Warm bodies” that turned the genre into a rom-com, but nothing more… As I said, a good gimmick was enough…

Now, “World War Z” is not your generic zombie film. First of all, it is not a horror. It has some decent jump scares, but it is not its purpose to instil fear or disgust. Probably partly due to its PG-13 rating (15 in the UK), the camera shies away from the gore in favour of the grand scale and epic feel and – hands down – you haven’t seen a zombie film like that before. What you’d usually see in zombie genre are closed sets, claustrophobic interiors, flickering lights and moaning undead.

Secondly, “World War Z” is by far one of the very few (if not the only one) zombie films that is actually self-aware. Normally – and it is quite annoying if you think about it – the characters in zombie horrors have no idea what a zombie is, what it wants, how dangerous it is, or how to fight it. Of course they’d most likely figure it out quite quickly, but they have to do the dance anyway. And no-one ever calls the zombies ‘zombies’ as if it was taboo or something. At times you’d find that the characters come up with colourful euphemisms like ‘biters’ or ‘walkers’ (as exemplified in “The Walking Dead”), but with a few exceptions, the Z-word is seldom used. And to think that the living dead and the concept of a zombie apocalypse are so deeply ingrained in the modern pop-culture that it seems ludicrous to come up with film characters that are oblivious to it all. Come on, even children know what zombies are.

 

“World War Z” calls things as it sees them and the Z-bomb is dropped quite early in the film. ‘Ok, so these are zombies, right?’ And everything is clear!!! With that comes a natural extension of ‘only head-shots do the trick’, and we are good to go without dancing around it…

Finally, the film-makers seem to know very well what they want from their zombies. Contrary to the book, the undead are Danny-Boyle-fast and fearless, they have some sort of a swarm mentality, (Minor spoiler) they don’t attack the people out of hunger, but rather to spread the virus (/Minor spoiler), so the gore and flesh-eating sequences are ultimately unjustified by the film lore, and it only takes seconds for the virus to kill the host and turn him into a zombie. And I think it’s perfectly acceptable. This way, the massive scale is guaranteed and nobody needs to dwell on the gore, because it is not an issue at all.

So, why the hatred, dare I ask? Most critics will point out that “World War Z” starts off with a bang and keeps the pressure pumping for a good while, but it withers down in the final act, and thus the ending is supposedly anticlimactic.  In addition, the original ending (before the overhaul) of the film was supposed to include a massive grand-scale epic battle between the zombies and the remnants of the human race in order to settle the score once and for all, and it seems that a great deal of people are of the opinion it would have been better that way. Wouldn’t that have been dumb? I personally believe that the third act in the final version of “World War Z” turned out to be much better in the long run. Sure, it loses the epic feel, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, does it? It still remains very interesting and makes a bit more sense than a battle against zombies. I wonder whether there is any correlation between the critics, who would have preferred the epic CGI-ridden ending to “World War Z”, and the critics who wrote sonnets about “Iron Man 3”… I’m sure it would make for an interesting Venn diagram.

I’ll ask again: what is it that you all find so repugnant in “World War Z”? Surely, the [air quotation marks] anticlimactic ending cannot be a deal-breaker here. Could it be again the case of group hate that is driving you to dress the film down? Or is it the notorious Damon Lindelof, who helped with the re-writes of the script? After he had rehauled “Prometheus”, everything with his name on will be ridiculed in the internet by the community of hate-spouting trolls with too much time on their hands.

I, for one, actually liked “World War Z”. Brad Pitt’s character fits perfectly into the ‘action hero’ pigeon hole and there’s nothing wrong in it – after all it is an action movie and get over yourselves!  Action hero’s family needs to be special, he needs to be the only one in the world who can save the day and he has to come out alive out of more than one clusterf**k. That’s just how the genre works, and don’t mistake this film for a zombie horror, because it’s not and I think I said that already. It’s a zombie action movie and a quite good one at that. And while I think one can have a problem with many things about it, “World War Z” definitely stands on its own two feet within the genre, especially in terms of the special effects, the sheer scale of events, the pacing and the volume of action. “World War Z” fills in the space left by virtually every zombie film, as it shows the prelude to each and every zombie horror story. 

The Blind Spot #3 – “Shallow Grave”

I think it happened when I was on my way home having just watched “Trance”. Wow, was that almost 2 months ago? Time flies when you’re running a blog… Anyhow, I was just trying to remember some of the older Danny Boyle movies in order to put “Trance” in context, because that’s just what my mind does at times to keep things nice and segregated up there. And then… What am I missing? Surely I’ve seen most if not all of his work, because Danny Boyle is in fact one of my favorite directors currently in business. But only a couple of minutes later when I got home and popped my laptop open, a quick IMDB survey revealed everything to me – “Shallow grave”… How could I have not seen it before?

Sure, apart from that, two other films also have also slipped under my radar (“Millions” and “A life less ordinary”), but his grand debut… shame on me. Quick, Robin! To the Lovefilm-o-mobile…

Now that I have corrected this heinous aberration, I can yet again walk the streets with my head held high. Not that anyone cares, but I shall do it anyway. So, for those of you who, like me, have spent your lives completely oblivious to the fact that Danny Boyle did something before “Trainspotting”, “Shallow grave” should be a fantastic treat.

It’s a story about a trio of friends (Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston and Ewan McGregor) who share a flat in Edinburgh and are on the lookout for a fourth flatmate. After an extensive and hilarious search that involved some mildly condescending comedy they finally bag a suitable fit. What’s not to like about him? He promised to be quiet and is loaded with cash, apparently, so welcome aboard. Nothing lasts forever though and shortly thereafter, the new tenant kicks the bucket and is found by our trio lying on his bed all naked with his junk hanging out. While I’m here, I should point out that it appears that Danny Boyle’s obsession with full frontal nudity in his films can be traced right down to the debut. And it almost never involves sexual context (maybe with the exception of “Trance”) and even if it does, it’s always almost awkwardly placed as if Boyle wanted to have the movie acknowledged as an adult feature, but not quite.

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As if he would think: ‘What? Is my film getting a PG-13? Not on my watch! I’m making movies for adults, not adolescents. Quickly, let’s put a scene with a penis in it. That ought to teach them… PG-13 my ass now!’ Diabolical laugh then ensues…

Yep, I know it sounds weird, but genitalia in Danny Boyle’s movies always get you by surprise…

Right, back to the story… The dearly departed tenant leaves behind a suitcase full of cash, which leaves the trio with a dilemma: should we call in the guy’s death and have the police  confiscate the money, or maybe we should keep the money, dismember the body and bury it in the forest and continue to live as millionaires… Yeah, I think everybody knows how that dilemma is going to be solved, especially in a Danny Boyle universe…

Even though “Shallow grave” was shot on a shoestring budget and it looks cheap through and through, it is in all actuality a great film to watch. Clearly, the Danny Boyle’s storytelling genius was already well developed and at large. The story is paced fantastically and the characters evolve perfectly suited for the horrors of the film’s climax. Ewan McGregor was a delight to watch and his subsequent bromance with Boyle that lasted for a while is completely understandable as this youngster had a true natural talent. What caught my attention though, was Eccleston’s character – David, who slowly loses his senses as a result of the trauma disposing of a body must have clearly been. It was kind of reminiscent of Di Caprio’s character in “The Beach” in a way, which led me to believe Boyle’s fascination with insanity and trauma can be considered a theme of his career.

Speaking of themes in Danny Boyle’s film making career, I think am now able to divide his body of work into two chapters. The thing that separates the two is the lens flare. I mean seriously, go and watch “Trance” or “Slumdog” and you’ll know what I mean, because at some point in his career Boyle fell in love with working against the light and playing with it to a point of using lens imperfections for artistic effects. I think right around “Sunshine” (or even “The Beach” to a small extent) Boyle really made extensive use of what was to become his signature photography. Before that, “Shallow Grave”, “Trainspotting” , “The Beach” and even “28 days later” are all way more modest. In fact, they actually share a lot in storytelling and style, but when it comes to details, I think it’s safe to say that Boyle’s early work could be collectively called ‘the held-back period’. While all Boyle’s movies have a common theme of human instability and innate brutality, there came a point in Boyle’s career where the gloves came off and he started to investigate human weaknesses in a way more visceral, graphic way.  So, what in the world happened between “28 days later” and “Sunshine” that kicked Danny’s film making into another level? I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to that, but I surely will try and come up with something.

I can only say that “Shallow grave” allowed be to look at Danny Boyle a bit differently. It’s a fantastic piece of cinema and up till now I can’t believe I haven’t seen it for such a long time. It is not his greatest achievement – obviously, as one’s big screen debut is almost always not the opus magnum that would define him for generations to come. It did however, define Boyle’s style and set the wheels in motions, so that we could admire his latest work as mature films for mature audience with mature expectations.