I Think that World War Z is a Work of Subversive Genius (No, Really).
I was very excited by the World War Z concept – an oral history of the Zombie Apocalypse written by Max Brooks. I loved Studs Terkel’s oral history The Good War and it is the model for the WWZ book (there is also a brilliant book in that vein on the Vietnam War by Christian Appy). Then I heard about the audiobook version of World War Z with John Turturro, Martin Scorcese, Jürgen Prochnow, Paul Sorvino, Carl Reiner, and Simon Pegg, to name but a few. I was very excited indeed. Admittedly, one review praised the book for its biting critique of US “isolationism”, which made me wonder which planet the reviewer inhabits (clearly not the one on which the US has 1000 military bases and is still at war in Afghanistan whilst also conducting drone strikes in at least 6 countries). But stupid critics can’t be blamed on the book, can they?
I was undeterred by those nagging doubts over the politics of the book, but when I actually listened to the audiobook I found it to be a dull pastiche of stupid zombie clichés. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. As a whole the genre is, umm, sort of lifeless anyway, but (rather appropriately) it refuses to lie down and die even when it’s bits are all smelly and dropping off everywhere. The Zombie genre entered the baroque stage (where everything is exaggerated repetition of previous innovations) some time ago. George Romero did bravely fight the tide with Land of the Dead (which suggests that brain eating zombies – possibly symbolizing Al Qaeda – are far, far preferable to rich people and George W. Bush), but style had triumphed over substance in the Zombie genre. The only sign of vigor in this port-mortem period came from 28 Days Later which managed to build substance from style.
Now the zombie genre landscape is littered with dead-eyed, soulless, inhuman characters who spend a lot of time killing zombies. World War Z is no exception. The Zombie killers are the worst of hipster 21st century ciphers. Cardboard cut-out renderings of Generation Kill soldiers or Mark Zuckerberg types. Sociopaths without charm or humor. (Mind you, I would say that about most TV and film characters nowadays, so I guess I’m just an old fart). Where the novel World War Z distinguishes itself, though, is in its disgusting xenophobic racism, US exceptionalism and utterly schizophrenic delusional Zionism.
In the book of the film (or at least the book that shared the title with the film) foreigners are very, very brutal. Thus, unsurprisingly, it turns out that the fiendishly oriental Chinese are reckless and absolutely callous about human suffering and death. The South Africans deliberately use a huge percentage of their population as condemned bait just to occupy the Zombies while they carry out a suspiciously familiar sounding Strangelovian stratagem. The Russians force their own soldiers to kill their comrades in a decimation. This was a special motivational technique apparently needed because when Russians are faced with a force that wants to exterminate them and all their loved ones they tend to just drink vodka and sing badly. This last sequence, like all of the book, is unabashedly derivative. In this case it draws on Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad (evidently Brooks boned up on military history). Beevor has a less-than-credible passage in which a Soviet General paces along a line of his troops slowly counting from one to ten. Each time he reaches ten he shoots the soldier he has reached in the face. (For some reason I did not think this was very likely to have actually happened, and when I searched for a source in Beevor’s book I found none. I guess if you sell enough books, you get some sort of “historian’s license”).
I don’t want to be unfair to Brooks here. All of his pastiche is tongue-in-cheek. He isn’t necessarily trying to fool anyone, but the problem is that the book is completely devoid of satire, humour or commentary so the only people who can enjoy the book are those who mistakenly believe that Brooks made up lots of cool stuff which he actually lifted from elsewhere.
That is not to say that the book doesn’t have any point at all. It is a really good promotion for the wonderfulness of the state of Israel. We hear, for example, that Israeli’s are innate Zombie fighters and naturally prepared for the Zombie apocalypse because they are always threatened by the omnipresent anti-Semites who plot each day the exterminate all Jews. Perhaps the most twisted part is that when the Zombie threat arises for real Israel throws open its borders to all Palestinians as long as they aren’t infected. Brooks doesn’t explain why they won’t let Palestinian refugees return without a Zombie Apocalypse, but to anyone who understands the situation faced by Palestinians, the portrayal of Israel welcoming with them open arms has to cause a sense of queasiness. Clearly Brooks, like so many others, is getting somewhat deranged in his attempt to reconcile the support of Zionism with his normal moral compass (however limited and parochial it might be).
So, now to the movie. Forewarned by the audiobook, I was forearmed for the film – I had a notebook and serious intent to use it. I was going to write a stunning review that would tear that hateful Zioganda hasbara blockbuster to pieces. However, I soon realized that I didn’t have to bother. Whether by intent, or not, the film actually subverts the messages of the book.
I can’t tell you how many things are wrong with the first third of the film. It is disjointed and alienating. Much of this is absolutely deliberate. We are made unable to empathize with the main characters not merely because they are made to look sickly and maggot-like, but because those intimate moments of drama which, by convention, are conveyed by intimate focus and reflective incidental music, are consciously trashed with extraneous noise and action. Equally, all of the action sequences are confused, disjointed, obscure and incomplete. They never give you the payoff of the climax and aftermath that are normal in action sequences, at least not with any clarity. The first 40 minutes of the film actually make you squirm in your seat with something far beyond mere tedium. This seems to be in order to elevate the fairly average Zombie action film that follows. It certainly does come as a sense of relief when they start with the more conventional, less confused, less disjointed, more brightly lit set pieces – no matter how risible they normally would be.
If that is the way they managed to salvage a potentially comically bad film, then I guess it is clever. They sacrificed the first third of the film to make the second two-thirds look good and, hopefully, the audience will more-or-less have forgotten the first part by the time they leave the theater. But for anyone wanting to subvert Brooks’s Zionism, the change simply could not have been better timed. The movie starts to pick up when the hero goes to Israel. But where the book gushes about Israel, the film merely brushes over such stuff with what amounts to an observance of the necessary pieties. The film goes through the motions of putting the white hats on the Israelis (how else could it be in Hollywood?), but the moment that signals, almost like the flipping of a switch, the move into actual excitement and genuine (if mild) entertainment, comes with the destruction of Israel. That is the “wow” moment of the film, such as it is. After what feels like an eternity of obscurity, darkness and frustration we finally get to see something exciting. Not only that, but the mass Zombie assault is the only part of the film that is original. In fact it is an iconic moment in a film which, true to the spirit of Brooks’s work, is incredibly derivative and familiar pap. This one moment, the striking feature in all of the trailers too, is the destruction of Israel – and that is when all of that excruciating discomfiture of the first 40 minutes is relaxed for good.
Looking at the film from the perspective of propaganda and predictive programming, a whole bunch of kids who know nothing about Palestine are being fed the suggestion that life is going to be grey, confusing and anxiety ridden until Israel gets some serious and profound regime change. I like to think that anyway.
Even if that isn’t true though, I doubt many $200 million films could be so uninspiring for potential readers of the book. Even with it’s commercial success, it is not a film likely to create devoted fans eager to buy the book and the audiobook and the graphic novel and the sequel and loads of the merchandise. And the way I see it, every human soul that doesn’t read World War Z is like a pure shining star of hope in the firmament of our future, while every dumb geek who thinks its cool because they are an ignorant parochial racist jerk can go and fuck themselves.