World War Z – a film review

When I read Max Brooks’ magnificent book World War Z, I knew there were plans for a film, and I knew they wouldn’t work.

As I described in my review of it, World War Z is a fictional account of interviews conducted by a UN official with survivors of a great zombie war that decimated humanity. Undertaken ten years after the war was more or less won, the book combined gripping war stories with close-to-the-bone political observations that made the events chillingly compelling.

When I heard it was going to be made a film, I knew that the dozens of compelling stand-alone stories would never transfer to the big screen and would be better off as a mega-series. Thankfully, though, the film seemed to take a different direction, taking only the broad idea of the book and changing the plot entirely. So while it almost certainly wouldn’t be anywhere near the book, it would be essentially a different story and therefore worth assessing on its own merits.

The first thing to say is that there are a huge number of distractingly obvious differences from the book, the biggest perhaps being the fact that the film is told in the “present day” as the zombie plague grows, rather than a retrospective view years later as with the book. As such, our hero, Gerry Lane, is not effectively taking on the role of a journalist, collating stories from around the globe, but some unspecified UN expert jetting around the world from crisis to crisis as the plague grows and humanity falls. Also, of course, there are significantly fewer scenes than the book, the film taking us from the USA to South Korea to Israel and then, randomly, Wales. There are slight echoes of events from the book at each stage, though the gaps between the book and film are frustrating.

The spectacular nature of the film makes it enjoyable, though. You can almost ignore the wooden dialogue and unfeasible (beyond the whole zombie thing, I mean) plot, because it looks stunning. The special effects as hoards of zombies over-run cities are chilling and breathtaking, and it’s fun to see the glimpses of Glasgow in amongst the CGI representation of Philadelphia.

And Malta does a great job standing in for Israel, though the story takes an uncomfortable turn as Lane’s contact in Jerusalem sets the city’s (so far) successful defence against the tide, in the context of Israel’s battles for survival against its enemies. The racism is most sickening when the eventual breach of the city’s defences comes through the clear fault of Palestinians, a so unsubtle brick of a plot development that it is stunning they got away with it.

The ending is rather unsatisfying, too, and not just because it is totally contrary to the book. In the book, the cause of the zombie plague is never totally explained and doesn’t really matter – because it is how humans, communities and governments react to the crisis that is most interesting. So the film rather destroys this angle by providing a bit of a get-out clause, a rather unlikely weakness in the zombies that allows the tide to be turned and the film to conclude with hints to a more optimistic sequel. With the zombies’ achilles’ heel found, the whole point and success of the book is undermined.

Of course, we need to view this as separate from the book, and on its own merits it more or less stands up as a half-decent action film, even with the jaw-droppingly blatant racism. But with the huge budget and big names, the film could have been much, much more.

I’m sure it’s not too late for some clever director to start thinking of the mega-series.

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