The zombie flick got the summer blockbuster treatment with "World War Z," an expensive, expansive, action-horror thriller starring Brad Pitt. So given its big budget and star power, how does the apocalyptic flick stand up to the canon of zombie film and literature? U.S. News asked three zombie experts how "World War Z" fits in – or strays from – the classics. (Note: "World War Z" spoilers lie ahead)
The Viral Outbreak
"World War Z" frames its zombie apocalypse as a global viral pandemic, not unlike SARS or swine flu, but much, much worse. This isn't always the case in traditional zombie films, like George Romero's seminal "Night of the Living Dead."
"With the Romero zombie, you usually did not have a reason for the infection, the plague, the virus, whatever it's called," says Stephen Graham Jones, author of "Zombie Bake-Off" and a professor at University of Colorado at Boulder who teaches a class on zombies. Though Romero suggested that radiation may have been the source of his zombie genesis (the film came at the height of Cold War atomic bomb paranoia), Jones says, "It doesn't matter how the zombies started, it matters that they're there."
Not so with the viral zombies of "World War Z."
"Now the zombie has become a metaphor for the fear of disease," says Rob Weiner, a librarian at Texas Tech University who will be teaching a course on zombies this fall. The Center for Disease Control even released a plan – albeit tongue in cheek – for zombie preparedness.
"There's this idea that the zombie has a sense of realism to it that other monsters don't," Weiner says, adding that few people have survival plans for a potential "werewolf apocalypse."
The Speed of the Zombies
The zombies of "World War Z" are not the slow-moving, rigor mortis corpses of "Night of the Living Dead" and many zombie films since. They're quick, jumpy, twitchy undead creatures that chase and pounce on their living victims.
"Ever since 'Shawn of the Dead,' the slow zombie has just become too comedic," says Weiner. "We live in a fast-paced society and I think modern audiences want those quick cuts and want those zombies fast."
But more than just a cinematic aesthetic, the move to fast-moving zombies – popularized by 2002's "28 Days later" – signifies a shift in the themes of zombie films.
"With slow-moving zombies, what always comes at stake is our humanity," says Jones. In those films, the zombies often trap their victims in a space that leads the humans to turn on one another.
"In the fast zombie stories, it's not our humanity that is at stake anymore. It's our survival," he says.
They also play to anxiety about the downsides of how chaotic and interconnected our world has become.
"How they explain the collapse of society is with the speed with which this thing spreads," says J.L. Bourne, author of a series of post-apocalyptic zombie novels called "Day by Day Armageddon."
When not chasing humans, the zombies of "World War Z" slow down a bit, turning into shuffling, barely-moving, upright corpses in a hibernation of sorts, until a stimuli – a noise, the sight of a healthy human – snaps them into action.
"That's one of the age old questions that the zombie aficionados have: In the absence of food, what happens to the zombie?" Jones says. "[World War Z] suggest an answer by saying they go dormant, which is to say these creatures aren't supernatural. They're beholden to biology."
Brad Pitt plays the film's hero, Gerry, a former UN worker who is sent on a mission to find the first person infected with the zombie virus in the hopes that it will lead to a cure.
"The fact that you have this world trotting guy is unique," says Weiner, as zombie literature typically focuses on a small group of survivors rather than a singular hero. "Why are they so concerned about a UN guy who really doesn't have that much power? Why is the Brad Pitt character so important?" Weiner wonders.