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.
Bourne also scoffs at Pitt's character.
"We wouldn't send a UN guy out for a special operations mission," he says.
Gerry's mission to find the source of the virus is a novel approach to the genre, notes Jones.
"Most zombie stories, the problems they solve are not the actual zombies. The problems they solve are the human interactions," he says.
Gerry ultimately doesn't find the so-called "patient zero" of the zombie virus (which is probably for the better, since the virologist sent with him doesn't last very long). Rather, he realizes that the zombies don't attack humans who are a seriously ill, and that the way to defeat the zombies is to infect yourself with an illness (preferably one with a ready vaccine) that would make someone unappetizing to the zombie.
"If we use our human cleverness to get a magic bullet to kill all the zombies, I don't think that's very realistic," Jones says. "We [the audience] are much more willing to accept a really small victory, which is we find a way to camouflage ourselves."
But more than just a clever narrative trick, Gerry's work-around speaks to what the "World War Z" zombies represent: "A self replicating virus on a human scale," as Bourne puts it. "It was a walking virus. [With the solution], you see how these zombies behave, wanting nothing more than to inject and infect."
The fact that there was a happy ending differentiates "World War Z" from many zombie films.
"A lot of zombie films end with the zombies winning or a couple survivors going off on their own," Weiner says. "There isn't a sure resolution that works."
"World War Z" had its hero jetting from continent to continent, navigating the channels of international relations and understanding how different nation-states dealt with their impending doom.
"They framed it from a global perspective," Bourne says, "It seemed it had a big UN spin to it."
This also sets "World War Z" apart from the typical zombie films. "Most of the zombies are limited in scope," Jones says. "'World War Z' got a lot of its scariness, a lot of its dread, out of the fact the whole world is collapsing."
"'World War Z' was saying we live in a world society, we all need to get along and we cant have these petty little wars anymore," Weiner says. "I don't know that zombie films in general really have a political aspect to them in that way. Many of them have social aspects," like mass consumerism and loss of personal freedom, he says
On a smaller scale, "World War Z" also appeals to the world of preppers – people who prepare for mass chaos brought on by the breakdown of social institutions. (A Washington D.C. press screening of the "World War Z" even featured a panel of preppers to answer questions before the film). As Gerry rushes around a war zone of a grocery store grabbing all the food, supplies and medicine he could, the viewer can't help but to think, Maybe I should pick up some extra batteries on the way home – or an AR-15.
"I think this is mind candy for preppers" Bourne says, adding that preppers usually have more realistic situations in mind, like natural disasters. "If you can prepare for a zombie apocalypse you, are prepared for everything else," he says.
While people write off preppers, it's hard to deny how under-prepared our institutions are to deal with a zombie takeover, or even a lesser crisis.
"One of the things I was thinking as I was watching 'World War Z' is just how easy something like that would totally break down our society. People would be in chaos," Weiner says. "The most enduring stories use the zombie to highlight us in the foreground."