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Rants And Raves: Max Brooks And ‘World War Z’

This Weekend Read ‘World War Z’ Instead Of Seeing The Movie

Above: Brad Pitt saves the world in "World War Z."

Aired 6/20/13 on KPBS News.

Hollywood’s version of the zombie apocalypse invades theaters this weekend with Brad Pitt and “World War Z” (opening June 21 throughout San Diego). But the film uses little more than the title of Max Brooks’ best-selling novel.

Transcript

Hollywood’s version of the zombie apocalypse invades theaters this weekend with Brad Pitt and “World War Z” (opening June 21 throughout San Diego). But the film uses little more than the title of Max Brooks’ best-selling novel.

In the introduction to his novel, Max Brooks writes, "It goes by many names, the Crisis, the Dark Years, the Walking Plague, as well as newer and more hip titles such as World War Z or Z War I, I personally dislike this moniker as it implies an inevitable Z War II."

After seeing the Marc Forster film adaptation I worry about an inevitable "World War Z 2" or "WWZ" franchise because his film ends by saying it is only the beginning. Now that's scary.

So let me be up front and clear -- I read and loved Max Brooks’ “World War Z,” and the film opening this weekend should be renamed “Brad Pitt Saves the World.” It always baffles me when Hollywood buys a popular book for adaptation to the screen but then uses absolutely none of what made the book popular or unique. Granted, Broooks' "WWZ" is difficult to adapt. The books is a series of interviews with survivors of the zombie apocalypse some ten years after the fighting has ended. The interviews take place around the globe and cover every aspect of how the world responded to the zombie plague. But what director Forster and star/producer Brad Pitt deliver is nothing more than a big budget popcorn movie.

There’s a reason the best zombie films – starting with George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” -- come from outside the Hollywood system. It’s because at their very core, zombie films are about anarchy and destruction of social order. Hollywood, on the other hand, is all about maintaining the status quo with the reassuring message that everything will be okay, even in the zombie apocalypse.

Credit: Paramount

Zombies in 3D coming at ya in "World War Z."

The film of “World War Z” turns Brooks’ reflective collection of interviews into a summer action blockbuster in which a handsome white American male sets out to single handedly find the cure to the zombie plague as well as save his family. It’s precisely the story Brooks did not want to tell.

"I didn’t want to do another zombie adventure because that’s what everybody’s has done. From the days of George Romero, every zombie story that I have ever come across in any medium always dealt with a guy or a group of people and they have to get from point A to point B and all the adventures they have along the way."

Brooks wants to look at zombies as a global crisis, what he calls a macro-threat.

"So I had all these questions whenever I would see any of these micro adventures, I would say well what is the government doing? What are other countries doing? And how would you actually fight a war like this? Nobody was answering all of my questions."

Author Max Brooks is the son of actor/director Mel Brooks and actress Anne Bancroft.

Brooks answers these questions in his 2006 novel. His approach is to build the macro picture from micro stories. It’s like a photo mosaic made up of hundreds of smaller individual images. The movie, though, focuses the big picture and the epic scale of the zombie onslaught. The only intimacy the film engages in involves Pitt and his family but since that is a spotlight on the heroic star it really does not offer the same kind of detail that Brooks focused on in his book. Take this chilling and memorable scene set in Finland from the novel.

"It is spring, hunting season, as the weather warms and the bodies of frozen zombies begin to reanimate elements of the UN N4 – Northern Force – have arrived for their annual sweep and clear. Every year the undead’s numbers dwindle at current trends this area is expected to be completely secure within a decade."

That's a creepy image and it implies in more compelling terms than the CGI army of zombies in the film how vast the zombie threat was and how difficult it was to eradicate. Brooks’ book explores in fascinating detail what happens when a global crisis causes all the infrastructure you have always relied on –government, emergency services, military – to fall apart.

"Zombies are a great tool for exploring societal collapse, and I really wanted to explore that. I think the world has become so interconnected that all you have to do is pull a few of these threads and the whole tapestry unwinds. So I wanted to explore that, I wanted to explore what would happen when the global supply chain is cut? How do you feed a hundred million people? What happens when communication breaks down between 2 countries that have nuclear weapons? What happens when the military sets up to fight one kind of war and is suddenly confronted with another? So there was a lot of issues I wanted to tackle and I thought zombies are a great way of doing that."

He also explored how cultural differences and political realities could affect how each country dealt with the problem. How does the tension between Israel and Palestine affect the way people view the help being offered between countries? How does China's need to save face impact how open it is in reporting what's going on? Or how does the desire to cash in on the panic play into the way the U.S. pharmaceutical industry reacts to the zombie plague? Here's a sample from the book.

"Look at what we’ve put into research during and after the war and we still don’t have a cure or vaccine. We knew Phalanx was a placebo and we were grateful for it. It calmed people down and let us do our job. What you would have rather we told people the truth? That it wasn’t a new strain of rabies but a mysterious uber-plague that re-animated the dead?"

All of these details make Brooks' novel a riveting read.

Brooks says the popularity of zombie is tied to the times we live in.

"The last time you had a zombie craze was the 1970s. And that was a time of anxiety, that was a time when we really did feel like the system was breaking down politically, economically, socially, even environmentally. There really was this feeling that it’s not working any more. And people were really scared. There’s such anxiety. And so much of the problem seems so big and we feel so powerless."

Enter zombies. These vacant-eyed re-animated corpses allow us to deal with our apocalyptic fears of society breaking down, government disintegrating, and people turning on each other but with a fictional catalyst. But the “World War Z” film misses this complexity by targeting a core American audience that thinks it can handle the zombie apocalypse.

"They’ve got the right guns, they’ve got the right backpack, and they feel like if a zombie movie happened it might not be a bad thing cause then they get to be the hero and not the dude who works at the Blockbuster that’s being closed."

In other words, they want to be Brad Pitt. The film’s main mistake is that it thinks it’s a story about zombies. That's the trick of zombie films, they are about zombies but also not really about zombies. Brooks understands the zombies are merely the blank slate onto which you write your social commentary. The film -- with it’s eye on summer box office – doesn’t want to explore the genuinely dark themes the book takes on. Things like pharmaceutical fraud, corrupt politicians, or harsh realities about who lives and dies.

"There was another reason for the partial evacuation, an eminently logical and insidiously dark reason, that many believe will forever insure that Redeker will have the tallest pedestal in hell, those who were left behind were to be herded into special isolated zones there were to be human bait. You see the genius, the sickness. Keeping people as prisoners because every zombie besieging those survivors will be one less zombie throwing itself against our defenses."

The unabridged audiobook of “World War Z” from Random House just came out last month. I urge you to stay home and listen to that rather than give your hard earned dollars to a brain dead Hollywood film.

Credit: Paramount

The zombie onslaught in the film of "World War Z."

"World War Z" (rated PG-13 for intense frightening zombie sequences, violence and disturbing images) fails for me both as an adaptation of Brooks' novel and as a zombie film. There is so much in the film that is just plain stupid (I don't want to give spoilers but I will say there are a pair of ridiculously dumb scenes involving a cell phone and a gun in the wrong person's hand) that it's hard to remain engaged in the story. The CGI and make-up are technically well done but when put to use in a lame narrative that fails to create any tension or suspense, they prove to be unimpressive. In the end, Forster's "World War Z" (which had a very troubled journey to the screen) is nothing more than a conventional Hollywood summer blockbuster aimed squarely at mainstream audiences. Brooks was wise to simply take a paycheck for the rights and walk away.

Companion viewing: "Night of the Living Dead," "Dawn of the Dead" (1978), "Pontypool," "28 Days Later"

Even KPBS succumbed to the zombie craze, and here's a little zombie fun.

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