WORLD WAR Z: A Decade of the Undead – A Retrospective 10 Years Later

Joshua Stuard takes a look back at the flawed adaptation of World War Z.
World War Z

World War Z is a decade old. And in a world post-pandemic, does Marc Forester and Brad Pitt’s modern zombie movie sink or swim?

World War Z in 2023

It’s Halloween season and there are tons of thrills to go around. From new sequels to fan-favorite franchises like Saw X and new franchises being brought to the big screen for the first time with Five Nights At Freddy’s. 2023’s films are absolutely phenomenal with their thrills and chills. But in a world post-pandemic, one can’t help but think back to another feature film adaptation of an exceptionally popular book.

I am, of course, referring to Marc Forester’s World War Z, the live-action adaptation of Max Brooks’ oral history of the worldwide zombie epidemic from 2006. While not generally well received by the fans of the novel back in 2013, the film has slowly gained a cult status due to it being one of the more well-made zombie films in recent history.

Now, with the COVID-19 Pandemic practically over across the world, how has the action-thriller held up after a decade?

Zombies… lots of ’em.

World War Z began life as the follow-up novel to Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide (2003). Released as a more serious look at how the world would stack up against an actual Zombie Apocalypse. The book was inspired by the book The Good War: An Oral History of World War II by historian Studs Terkel, and cult zombie films like George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead franchise.

Brooks took the opportunity to create a story that told the origins of the zombies, the war that followed, and the recovery efforts that the survivors lived through. Each chapter is filled with interviews with survivors from all walks of life, different cultures, and backgrounds, with many being from countries all around the world.

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Brooks also took the opportunity to tell a story about the fundamental flaws of the worldwide governments, commenting on the ineptitude of several nations, and the isolationist beliefs of the United States of non-interventionism. Throughout the book, several nations implement quarantine measures while attempting to silence individuals to keep the secret of the infection from spreading.

In a really interesting prediction, the book seems to point to the source of the apocalypse beginning in China, similar to the reported outbreak of COVID-19 only a few years ago.

For those looking to read the novel themselves, I would also recommend listening to the star-studded cast of the audiobook as well. Featuring the likes of Mark Hamill, Jeri Ryan, John Turturro, Martin Scorsese, Simon Pegg, Nathan Fillion, and Common, among other talents, the audiobook truly brings the book to life in a terrifyingly satisfying way.

Bringing the dead to life

Marc Forester’s take on the novel is certainly an interesting one, though not far-fetched for those who read and understand the purpose of the novel. The film chooses instead to focus not on any one particular individual from Brooks’ novel but to introduce a new character in Gerald “Gerry” Lane, a former United Nations officer who was brought back into the fold following the worldwide outbreak.

Played exceptionally well by Brad Pitt, Gerry is sent on a worldwide mission in an attempt to discover the origins of the outbreak. In a nod to the novel, Gerry is sent from the United States to South Korea, Israel, and the United Kingdom in search of a way to combat the zombie outbreak.

Joining Pitt in the film’s cast includes actors and actresses most US Citizens likely would not recognize save for a couple of relatively familiar names such as Peter Capaldi and James Badge Dale. Gerry’s wife Karin is played expertly by Mireille Enos (AMC’s The Killing) among other supporting actors such as David Morse (The Green Mile), David Andrews (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), and Sterling Jerins (The Conjuring Franchise).

The story is relatively simple, following Gerry’s trek around the world and his close calls with the infected populace of every nation he arrives in. Each moment out of safety is breathtaking and chilling, with zombies becoming intermixed with healthy humans in quick cuts that make it harder to pinpoint who is infected and who isn’t. Various action set pieces hype up the thrills, with particular note to the escape from Jerusalem and the absolute mass of zombies that literally flood the streets of the ancient holy city.

Each set piece is comfortably interwoven with admittedly clichĂ© moments, such as a phone going off during a stealth scene that ignites the tension and begins yet another chase. But between the action, the viewer does get moments to breathe alongside Gerry, as his seemingly non-stop attempts to avoid infection give way to the film’s dramatic reveal in the second act. Look closely the first time you watch the movie. You’ll notice a few things aren’t quite right about the zombies’ actions.

The dead still walk thee?

Admittedly, the film does lose some luster as it is clearly made to be a summer blockbuster, with Brad Pitt as another attempt to create an action-hero flick/CGI fest. Through the execution, Forester and Pitt make this extremely loose adaptation of Brooks’ novel worth a watch for zombie fans. Though, for fans of the book, the film may end up leaving a sour taste in the mouth.

Many book adaptations seem to miss the point of the novels they are adapting in favor of telling a more nuanced story by comparison. World War Z is no different in this regard, as the film avoids commentary on the world government’s reactions to the zombie outbreak save for a few nations. The film also takes a step away from the story by focusing almost exclusively on Gerry Lane and his family instead of following the actions of several characters depicted in the novel.

Granted, not many films can actively follow a disjointed narrative like Brooks’ novel. A fact that makes me wonder what film could be.

Raise the dead

World War Z was intended to launch a franchise of modern Zombie films, though due to several logistical reasons, the sequel failed to take off and was canceled by Paramount Pictures in February 2019. However, this doesn’t mean the franchise is over. At least, it could be revived in a much different way.

The novel was an oral history, told through the eyes of people around the world as they attempted to survive several instances of the outbreak’s consequences. Each section of the story is told through an interview format, where the character of Max Brooks interviews each survivor and their stories. Almost…like a documentary.

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I believe World War Z would benefit from an 8-part miniseries where each part of the show would feature an ensemble cast recreating selections from the novel for film, with interviews with the people the fictional cast are portraying. Similar, in a way, to Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ Band of Brothers, which featured both the surviving veterans of WWII telling their stories as well as an ensemble cast portraying those stories in live-action.

World War Z has the potential to be one interesting adaptation today, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Standing out against other amazing post-apocalyptic shows such as The Last Of Us and The Walking Dead are challenges, of course, but no other zombie story could tell the tale like Max Brooks’ epic.

In conclusion, World War Z is a standout film in the zombie genre, one that many have come to love in this modern world. Whether or not the franchise grows further is up to Paramount Pictures, but the fans can rest easy knowing that, in this day and age of sequels and remakes, nothing ever stays dead for long.

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