Firstly: the flick is not a work that is based, in any real or meaningful sense on Max Brooks’ work World War Z: An oral history of the zombie war (2006). It has the title (well, partly), but this is about it. One of the few things they took from the novel was a plot line that teetered on the edge of Brooks’ narrative on Israel/Palestine and stretched it through a large chunk of the film.
Brad Pitt’s character Gerry arrives in Jerusalem to complete a mission given to a virologist (KIA) to find patient zero in what seems like hours of the undead outbreak. It doesn’t really make sense, but there you go.
In Jerusalem, in the radical othering, zombies seamlessly replaced Palestinians as the threat par excellence. This transition is entirely unremarkable. Behind the Wall – now used to protect from the swarm of undead – is a fantasy of human purity, protected, safe, and a sanctuary from a world whose intent is to wipe the inhabitants from the face of the earth. The desert is in bloom and life needs protection. Beyond the borders, beyond civilization, are uncontrollable hordes, baying for blood. They are mindless. They hate life. Israel has a right to protect their borders, after all.
In both narratives Israel has managed to implement procedures early to stem the threat of the “African Rabies” (was this in the film? warning: it is in the book). In the novel, describing a situation where Israel had been driven out of the occupied Palestinian territories by the resistance and thus wielding considerably less power, the Israeli ambassador announced to the UN General Assembly that they were enacting a policy of “voluntary quarantine”. The Palestinian interviewee Saladin Kader tells the (unnamed) narrator twelve years after the outbreak:
I didn’t even hear the second part of the fat bastard’s speech, the part about offering asylum, no questions asked, to any foreign-born Jew, an foreigner of Israeli-born parents, any Palestinian living in the formerly occupied territories, and any Palestinian whose family had once lived within the borders of Israel. The last part applied to my family, refugees from the ’67 War of Zionist aggression…I had never been to Israel, or what was about to be absorbed into the new state of Unified Palestine…(2010, 39)
The film entirely skirts these narratives of the novel. Instead, Israel-proper is innovative, benign and site of salvation for the world’s refugees. Within the scenes of a benevolent, peaceful, harmonious Israel, power has not shifted, and Palestinians – we assume from the racialised discourses – are just happy to have their lives saved in a world gone to shit.
Given this is meant to be an adaptation, the filmmakers are directly antagonistic to this post-apocalypse speculation. The novel goes to Tel Aviv and Bethlehem, but not to Jerusalem – in fact in the novel Unified Palestine had withdrawn altogether from Jerusalem because it did not make sense strategically in the planned defense from zombie attack.
It does, however, (and I speculate) make strategic sense for Israel that an international film to be set in a contested space such as Jerusalem with benign nationalists at the helm. Herein the Israeli state and nationalism is not problematized in the way the book suggested were possible in a situation of extreme emergency. It would be interesting to know what incentives the filmmakers were given to depart so significantly from this narrative.
What made Brooks’ work so distinct was a number of factors: it was speculative fiction; it was set 12 years after the Zombie War; it was a reflection on experience, rather than action-thriller. I suspect what would have worked well as a format for this story (perhaps ironically) is the Israeli film Waltz With Bashir, albeit without what Ghassan Hage calls the “postexterminatory existentially anxious warrior”. Set 25 years after the “Lebanon War”, it flits around in time and space, has a central character that is collecting stories, and does not require action scenes to propel it forward.
The filmmakers had a chance to be innovative with a radically new zombie apocalypse film format and story telling style, but instead made clichés collected from every zombie apocalypse flick since Night of the Living Dead, without the fun of Shaun of the Dead.
I was really disappointed by World War Z. Many reviewers have cited (lazily) Romero’s work, but I think where this departs from Romero so spectacularly to the endless miraculous escapes by our protagonist Gerry. Zombie films need to suspend your disbelief and as someone who is pretty into the genre, it really doesn’t require much to get me there. We never, for instance, get any sense why Gerry is so important. Or why the mission is on is so urgent, why he was chosen, or why he is so materially supported in doing this is not entirely clearOr why, after the immediate outbreak a massive fuck off plane can be afforded so a virologist can go and find patient zero (or why this would be a pressing issue). Or why Gerry continued the work of the virologist (who thankfully toppled himself)– what the fuck does Gerry know? Come to that, what does he know that he is considered so important by the UN that he is shunted around the world? Or why is it that Gerry’s plane was allowed to land? Or why he could move around with little more than a limp after being impaled after a plane crash (I wont go into that).
Also: Do not watch it in 3D, whatever you do.)