by Steve Habrat
In 1968, Duane Jones and a rag-tag group of desperate and confused survivors holed up in a rural Pennsylvania farmhouse as undead cannibals roamed the yard waiting for their meals to emerge from their boarded up safe-haven. The survivors, who were armed with only a rusty rifle and a handful of bullets, were almost completely oblivious to what was happening a mile away from where they were hiding, their only source of information being messy and almost skeptical reports from spooked news anchors. The television flickered images of flustered government officials dashing to a car and mentioning something about radiation from space causing all the chaos in America’s streets. There was also the hollow reassurance from local authorities that the situation was under control even though you got the uneasy feeling that these events were going to get worse before they got better. Other than that, the survivors of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead were on their own, with their backs pressed firmly against the wall. Forty-five years later, we have director Marc Forster and Brad Pitt’s vast World War Z, which is based on the globetrotting novel by Max Brooks. Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead preyed upon the viewer’s fear of being confined into a tight space by a horror that lacked clear-cut explanation. As far as scope is concerned, Forster’s World War Z is the polar opposite of Romero’s vision, presenting the audience with sprawling shots of zombie mayhem from all over the world and much to this viewer’s surprise, it is actually a pretty effective zombie blockbuster.
World War Z begins with former UN employee Gerry Lane (played by Brad Pitt), his wife, Karin (played by Mireille Enos), and their two daughters, Rachel (played by Abigail Hargrove) and Constance (played by Sterling Jerins) caught in a nasty Philadelphia traffic jam. On the radio, a fuzzy news report talks of a rabies outbreak that has apparently spread internationally. Overhead, helicopters roar and ambulance sirens echo through the buildings. Suddenly, there is an explosion just up the road and panic erupts as zombies charge through the bumper-to-bumper maze. Gerry and his family manage to escape to an apartment complex where they are to be extracted by a helicopter sent by Gerry’s former UN colleague, Thierry (played by Fana Mokoena). The Lane’s are taken to a US Navy ship that is just off the coast of New York City. On board, Gerry learns that the president is dead, the vice president is missing, and that the world is going to Hell in the blink of an eye. Thierry and the ship’s naval commander soon approach Gerry about accompanying virologist Dr. Fassbach (played by Elyes Gabel) on a mission to find the source of the outbreak. Gerry reluctantly accepts the mission and the two men set out towards South Korea, but as the investigation deepens, their dangerous journey also takes them to Jerusalem and Cardiff.
What was only heard about and distantly felt in Night of the Living Dead is shown to the viewer in full CGI glory in the rocky opening moments of World War Z. Forster assaults the viewer with blurry images of panicked citizens running for their lives as cars smash into one another, buildings blow up, and snapping zombies jump through the air like banshees. Unlike Romero’s shuffling ghouls, Forster’s zombies are more in the vein of the cannibals found in Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. These zombies have cloudy white eyes that bulge out of their head and they twitch, spaz out, and when they spot their prey, dash wildly towards their meal. They hurl themselves off of buildings towards spinning helicopters and when they hear a noise on the other side of the massive wall that protects Jerusalem, they pile on top of each other like ants to reach their victims. While the initial glimpses of the ghouls in the World War Z trailers were a little corny, the finished product is pretty impressive, especially when viewed in long intervals from above. While these overhead shots are here to wow, they also allow Forster to conceal some of the gut munching that is taking place in the streets. Considering World War Z is rated PG-13, Forster is forced to really cut back on the violence that has become a staple of the zombie subgenre. He keeps the violence largely off screen but there are still more than a few moments that will make you wince. Be warned, zombie fanatics, there is none of the intestine spewing carnage that Romero is known for.
It was no secret that there was quite a bit of off-screen drama surrounding World War Z, both before and during production. Before the cameras rolled on the $200 million dollar project, there was a massive bidding war for the rights between Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way, and Brad Pitt’s company, Plan B Entertainment. Pitt wasn’t content on just having the rights to the film—he also stars in this epic zombie beast. Pitt is the only A-list star billed in World War Z and he gives his all in his performance. He is a loving family man before the violence comes crashing down and he is a driven investigator racing to save the human race when the zombies charge towards him. The action allows Pitt to be tough-guy hero in certain places, but some of the scenes are plagued by action movie clichés that will just have you shaking your head. As far as the supporting acts go (which is everyone else), Enos is asked to just hover around a cell phone and wait for Gerry to call and reassure her that he hasn’t become an all-you-can eat buffet. Gabel is given a small and brief role as Dr. Fassbach, who is convinced he can find a way to beat the virus. Mokoena shuffles around the Navy ship and is simply asked to explain how bad the situation is to Pitt. Unknown actress Daniella Kertesz is here as a shoot-first-as-questions-later Israeli soldier named Segen, who joins up with Pitt in Jerusalem. Make sure you keep your eyes peeled for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Matthew Fox (Alex Cross) a Navy SEAL operative and a small, scene-stealing appearance by David Morse (The Green Mile) as a former CIA operative with a nasty story to tell about North Korea’s approach to containing the zombie outbreak.
Considering that World War Z is a zombie movie, there is no doubt that you are wondering if it is actually scary. While there is quite a bit more emphasis on the 10-miles-wide action, World War Z offers up its fair share of nail-biting suspense, especially in the smartly claustrophobic climax that subtly winks at Romero’s 1968 game changer. Initially, I was unsure if I cared for this drastic shift in vision (those gliding God’s-eye-views are really something), but I’ve warmed to it in the hours since I’ve seen the film. What ultimately holds World War Z back from being a great zombie blockbuster is the number of clichés that you’ll find throughout its runtime. It seems that every place that Pitt’s Gerry steps, zombies manage to conveniently come barging in right when he gets a lead and you’ll highly doubt that he could survive a specific fiery plane crash. Oh well, he’s clearly having a good time playing a he-man action hero and I’m certainly not going to rain on his parade. Overall, World War Z gets off to an awkward start, but once it finds its groove, the film morphs into fun-but-flawed apocalyptic journey. It proves that there is still some wild-eyed life in the zombie subgenre and what Romero couldn’t afford to show us in Night of the Living Dead is actually pretty chilling stuff.
by Steve Habrat
I must confess that I have never written a book review before. Sure, I’ve raved about certain books to friends and rolled my eyes in disgust at others as I flipped past the last page, but I’ve never attempted to give an in-depth review of one. Books have always acted as my escapist entertainment because of my fascination with film. However, a few months ago, I was asked by Raymond Esposito, the gentleman behind You and Me against the World (and who also contributed a wonderful Halloween feature post to Anti-Film School), about possibly reviewing the first book in his Creepers Saga. Honored that he valued my opinion, I quickly agreed to give it a read and I dove right in to his vision of the zombie apocalypse. I must say, as a massive zombie fan, I truly enjoyed and was consistently impressed with this non-stop thrill ride. As I dove deeper and deeper in, it became clear that Mr. Esposito was staying true to the formula that really makes the great zombie stories work. He was placing extremely likable characters in front of his hordes of undead and then unleashing the most terrifying monster of all on his protagonists–fellow man.
On his last day as an oncologist, Dr. Russell Thorn is barely moved by the overwhelming number of individuals showing up in the ER for severe flu-like symptoms. Shortly into his shift, Dr. Thorn is called in to observe a patient that is spewing black bile and suffering from hypothermia despite the boiling Florida heat outside. It doesn’t take long for the patient to pass away, but to the horror of the hospital staff, the patient doesn’t remain dead. It wakes up with an insatiable hunger for human flesh. With the hospital descending into chaos, Dr. Thorn and two young nurses, Susan and Rosa, make an escape from the panic only to be greeted by more cannibalistic terror out in the Florida sun. With nowhere to go and the streets crawling with undead ghouls, the small group makes their way to Dr. Thorn’s home to wait the situation out. After a few days of observing from an upstairs window, Dr. Thorn realizes that the roaming ghouls don’t particularly like the chilly evenings and that they appear to be showing hints of intelligence. To make things worse, it appears as if the zombies know that Dr. Thorn and the two nurses are hiding inside the home. After a very close encounter with a horde of ghouls, the small group is saved by a heavily armed band of young warriors led by the reluctant Devin. Running out of options, Dr. Thorn agrees to join the group and they begin plotting a way to distance themselves from the swarming infected, but as the group will soon learn, there are things lurking out there in the chaos that are worse than the undead.
I was told that You and Me against the World was very cinematic, and I have to agree with this description, but I would also say that Mr. Esposito’s scope is about as epic as it can be, analyzing the zombie apocalypse from nearly every single destructive angle. I’d go so far to say that he comes dangerously close to matching what Max Brooks achieved in his globe-trotting zombie epic World War Z (hell, you could probably make the books into a double feature of sorts). There are nuclear meltdowns, war, bombings, car crashes, and more all chillingly tucked in amongst Esposito’s beefy character development. He envisions a world that is charred, scarred, and crawling with galloping cannibals his character’s dub “creepers,” who charge their prey while drooling black bile and burrowing underground when the sun goes down to stay warm. Yet Mr. Esposito isn’t content with his virus simply infecting humans. Oh no, things really take a creepy and fun turn when we are introduced to zombie kitties and in a giddy tribute to George A. Romero’s classic zombie film Night of the Living Dead.
In addition to all of the action that Mr. Esposito infuses into his zombie epic, he also presents a staggering number of protagonists for the reader to root for. It is a pretty big group and at first I feared that there may be one hero too many in You and Me against the World, but this is where Mr. Esposito truly shines. He gives each character their own mini introduction and then as the story progresses, allows us to see how each of these characters is connected to the other. While it is up to the reader to pick their favorite among the massive group, my two personal favorites were the baseball bat-wielding Austin and the deadly blue-eyed mute Goldie. And while Mr. Esposito makes all of his protagonists likable, he doesn’t forget to add a handful of vile baddies to the bunch. I don’t want to spoil too much of the fun, but his crazed cult leader is just so much fun to hate, especially when he is threatening to feed a group of terrified children to a ravenous “creeper.”
For zombie fanatics, You and Me against the World is a must for your bookshelf. Make sure you place it between your Walking Dead comics and your copy of the Zombie Survival Guide. It features numerous nods to Romero’s original Dead trilogy (Night, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead) as well several little tips of the hat to Richard Matheson and his classic vampire tale I Am Legend. Overall, Mr. Esposito dreams up a tense, gory, and fresh spin on the zombie genre while barely stopping to take a breath. He puts the reader through the ringer with white-knuckle suspense and leaves us all wanting to see what comes next in the massive and wildly creative trilogy.