World War Z (2013), Directed by Marc Forster
In his book on popular culture, The End of Victory Culture, Tom Englehardt identifies a narrative employed in film he dubs the annihilation narrative. In films where this narrative is employed, hordes of hostile savages lay siege to a fortress inhabited by a virtuous population of defenders, generally portrayed by white people. The set-up might also take the form of a traveling band of innocents who are constantly in danger of an ambush from hostile mobs of brown-skinned savages. As Englehardt notes, this narrative of besieged freedom fighters versus the dusky hordes has been
…[f]eatured in thousands of movies, [and] its prototype was certainly the band of Indians, whooping and circling the wagon train, but “they” could be Arabs charging the North African fort (Beau Geste), Chinese rushing the foreign legations (55 Days at Peking), Mexicans rushing the Alamo (The Alamo), Japanese banzai-ing American foxholes (Bataan), or Chinese human-waving American lines (Retreat, Hell!).
Zombies are convenient, of course, because they are not necessarily specific to any particular race or culture, and modern viewing audiences don’t regard the human bodies being mowed down as truly human.
And yet extremely similar political messages can be transmitted by employing a zombie apocalypse plot as with an old fashioned tale of white victory over savage natives. The heroes today, however, are no longer necessarily white people, but are nevertheless agents of what white people traditionally represented in 20th century film, namely, order, civilization, safety, and enlightened rule; and these things were in turn provided by the nation-state and its army of military and scientific experts.
World War Z excels in spades at employing these old models of the annihilation genre, and its overall message can be summed up thusly: we are threatened on all sized by hideous hordes of invaders, and if it weren’t for the government, we’d all be dead.
The movie opens with a series of images of disasters, famines, mob violence, disease epidemics and similar imagery. The overall effect of this is to convince the viewer that things are spinning out of control, and we are left wondering what can impose order.
Shortly thereafter, through the eyes of Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) we learn that Philadelphia (where Lane and his family reside) is being overrun by apparently zombified humans.
With the help of the U.S. Navy and Gerry’s friends at the U.N., he is able to escape to an American aircraft carrier where we learn that Gerry is a former U.N. investigator and that he must now take up his old responsibilities to learn the origins of the zombie disease in hopes of stopping it.
Gerry is flown to South Korea, a suspected place of origin of the disease, where he is protected by Navy SEALS and where he learns from a rogue CIA agent that he may learn more if he takes his search to Israel, where the Israeli state is effectively fighting off the zombie invasion thanks to its garrison state.
Gerry also learns that North Korea is perhaps the one society that has effectively contained the zombie disease by knocking out the teeth of all 23 million of its inhabitants in a matter of days. Apparently, zombies that cannot bite you cannot infect you.
Gerry travels to Israel where he finds Jerusalem surviving the apocalypse thanks to all the walls it has built to contain the Palestinians. The images of safe and free non-zombies protected on all sides by fortress-like walls from a crushing mob of savage zombies, reminds the viewer that the garrison state has many advantages. Indeed, the more segregated and controlled a society is, the better.
However, lacking the hard-core totalitarianism of the North Koreans, even Israel eventually succumbs to the hordes, although not without a valiant and courageous fight put up by the highly-competent Israeli regime.
With the help of the U.N., the U.S., Navy, The W.H.O., and a tough-as-nails female Israeli soldier, Gerry is eventually able to devise a solution that will finally allow the survivors to fight the zombies on relatively equal terms.
In the final scenes, thanks to government airlifts and interventions, ordinary people are able to avail themselves of this government-provided cure and perhaps overcome the invaders.
It is somewhat difficult to overstate how profoundly authoritarian and statist is World War Z, and the film employs many of the Cold War-era narrative elements that instructed viewers to trust and rely on government experts and military might while regarding the general population as nothing but a faceless, helpless mob.
Thus, we see in World War Z some similarities with 1950s UFO films in which government scientists and military personnel are our last great hope, all wound up together with war movies or the same era portraying Japanese, communist, and Arab invaders crushing in upon outposts of (usually American) civilization.
At the same time, the film, while employing zombies as a plot device, is essentially a movie about a disease pandemic like Outbreak (1995) and The Andromeda Strain (1971) and as such, the heroes inWorld War Z are the official state forces who seek to contain the disease in the face of a clueless or panicking populace.
It should be noted, by the way, that zombie films need not employ these narratives. Numerous zombie films and television shows, such as Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Walking Dead (2010- ) imply instead that survival is assured by localized resistance or small bands of survivors who rebuild society in the new world. In such cases, the central government is often nothing more than a far-off and irrelevant memory.
In World War Z, however, the sheer aggression and numerical advantage of the zombies makes it pretty clear that total destruction of the human race will be athand without the efforts of Gerry and his friends in high places.