It seems as if the American public can’t get enough of zombies these days. Whether they’re on TV like The Walking Dead, which was the season’s highest-rated cable show; in books, where novels like The Passage and Pride and Prejudice with Zombies top the best-seller lists, or in movies where, no matter how many times our familiarity breeds spoofs like Warm Bodies, Zombieland, and Shaun of the Dead, our hunger for the real thing never seems to die. But there may be no better proof that the genre has officially clawed its way out of the George-Romero-cult-following ghetto and into the mainstream than the PG-13 Brad Pitt vehicle, World War Z.
Much less bloody (though, of course, not bloodless and peppered with mild profanity) and much more cerebral than typical horror fare, the Pitt-produced apocalyptic thriller comes about as close as one can to a heart-warming zombie film.
One bright morning Gerry (Pitt), a former U.N. official and devoted family man finds his daily commute turned to pandemonium by a sudden plague of voracious undead. A resourceful fellow, Gerry manages to shepherd his wife and daughters to the safety of a U.S. battleship moored hundreds of miles offshore. But there’s a catch—if he wants his family to remain in the U.N.’s protection, he has to return to service and accept a commission to discover the source of the pandemic.
Going from exotic locale to exotic locale in his search for clues, Gerry runs into plenty of animated corpses jumping out in the night, but little in the way of entrail-gnawing or similar gore common to the genre. Throughout his journey he meets others who have suffered losses but are willing to risk life and limb to help him in his quest. Combined with Pitt’s effective portrayal of a self-sacrificing man desperate to protect his family in a world gone mad with fear, World War Z makes for a surprisingly touching adrenaline rush of a movie.
But while the film is fast-paced, moderately intelligent, and visually arresting (particularly its ant-like swarms of humanity), it’s nothing audiences haven’t seen before. So how then to explain its blockbuster opening weekend at the box office? What is it about zombies that seems to resonate so consistently with our collective imagination right now?
Perhaps it’s that the specter of local police forces and federal agents stymied by an outbreak of chaos and violence seems all too plausible in the age of terrorism. How one might handle the collapse of law and order seems a common, only slightly tongue-in-cheek topic at social gatherings of late. So maybe seeing quick-witted protagonists surviving the worst gives us hope that we too will be resourceful if the worst comes.
Or perhaps it’s that on some subconscious level we recognize that, one day, nations, cultures, and all man-made social constructions will fall in a mighty wave of destruction. With the zombie story, we see hearts literally gone cold with no care for their fellow human beings, driven solely by unquenchable appetite. World War Z makes this end times allusion even more explicit by featuring Jerusalem as a sanctuary city, its ancient walls a last defense against the hungry, mindless hordes.
But, of course, even the strongest walls can only stand so much assault. If we can take any lesson from movies like World War Z it is that our only hope for surviving the end—whether the end be disease, natural disaster, or, yes, even zombies—is to accept the path made for rescue before it comes.