It may be too rushed to dismiss World War Z, the latest Hollywood zombie extravaganza, as just another horror movie about a pandemic of bloodthirsty living dead. The film certainly includes many ingredients typical of this subgenre. The apocalyptic scenario of the beginning, when zombie mayhem in unleashed upon most cities across the world, is followed by the rise of a male hero, Brad Pitt. After a few patience-defying blunders, he predictably manages to find a partial solution to the catastrophe. The threat is not over yet, but we have taken the first step in the zombie war. The audience gets the message: a sequel is on the way.
The film’s somewhat contrived happy ending notwithstanding, I left the movie theater with the nagging feeling that things are not what they used to be in Zombieland. Maybe it’s the moment when Pitt’s middle-class family idyll is shattered by swarms of living dead. Or perhaps it’s the disturbing fall of Jerusalem to hordes of zombies, the images of which are clearly reminiscent of footage from the Palestinian Intifada.
One cannot help but ask: Who are these zombies? And why do we have to fight them?
The first sign that something has gone awry in the “good-guys-against-bad-guys” traditional plotline comes early in the film. A series of images of environmental degradation suggest a causal link between the zombie epidemic and rising levels of pollution. Later, we learn that the disease originated somewhere in East Asia, where the combination of toxic industrial waste and overpopulation created the perfect zombie breeding ground. In fact, the movie originally identified China as the source of the infection. That line was later removed in an effort to appeased Chinese sensibilities and Chinese censors, who are yet to approve the release of the film to the world’s second-largest cinema audience.
Hailing from developing countries, the living dead rapidly spread throughout the globe thanks to modern means of transportation. What is the film telling us about globalization? How are we to interpret this zombie genealogy?
World War Z clearly panders to Western fears of Asian dominance. As in so many other recent films, the peril comes from the East and threatens to destroy “our” way of life, so eloquently portrayed by Pitt and his family. The movie offers a dystopian view of the globalized planet, according to which the West is taken over by the rest. The hordes of famished zombies who invade Philadelphia, eager to sink their teeth into anyone in their path, can be interpreted as the world’s poor, desirous for a share in the wealth of prosperous America.
Yet, we should not give in to a facile reading of the movie as a simple “East versus West” story. After all, most Westerners quickly turn into living dead, with only a few pockets of human resistance left in the end. Faced with the sheer number of those infected by the pandemic, we cannot help but wonder: are zombies the 99%?
Let us revisit some key moments of World War Z bearing this question in mind. If the living dead represent the world’s poor, it is not surprising that their “disease” is viewed as contagious. After all, the standards of living have been declining in most developed nations, a situation exacerbated by the 2008 economic meltdown and the ongoing eurozone crisis. The movie’s conservative subtext is not hard to grasp. The developing countries are to blame for the faltering prosperity of the West. Their poor are contaminating us and we are becoming more like them.
The zombie invasion of major Western cities echoes recent demonstrations such as the Occupy Movement or the Spanish Indignados, who took to public spaces to demand the end of economic inequality. But the iconography of the rampant living dead assault on streets and buildings harks back to the storming of the Bastille at the onset of the French Revolution, which remains the prototype of mass protest movements to this day.
Nowhere is the political message of the film more transparent than in the scenes set in Jerusalem. The city was protected from the illness thanks to the foresight of its leaders, who built an enormous wall around its perimeter. This barrier is reminiscent of other similar constructions, such as the Berlin Wall or, more recently, the wall built on the southern border of the US to prevent immigrants from entering the country illegally via Mexico.
The city of Jerusalem is magnanimously allowing both Jews and non-Jews to take refuge in the zombie-free safe haven. Unable to contain her happiness for finally being in a secure location, an Arab woman wearing a headscarf starts to sing loudly on a microphone. The zombies, attracted to the noise, manage to scale the walls of the city and soon take over its streets. The lesson to be learned, the film seems to insinuate, is that the demise of Jerusalem will be the result of its excessive benevolence toward its poorer Arab neighbors.
But, if zombies stand for the dispossessed, what about the 1%? Hidden in safe locations, behind high walls or surrounded by razor-sharp fences (the apocalyptic condos?), the 1% are those who remained human.
In World War Z, the insidiousness of contemporary ideology is visible to the naked eye. The masses of living dead are out to get the besieged 1%. Unable to destroy all the zombies - there are simply too many - Pitt eventually finds a ruse to fight back. Why don’t humans, the 1%, just pretend that they are weak?
Inoculated with a potentially lethal but curable virus, humans become invisible to the zombies and are no longer harmed. The idea is not difficult to decode: to escape the wrath of the 99%, just pretend to be like them!
It remains to be seen what strategy the film’s sequel will adopt. Will we witness the cure of the zombie epidemic and the utopian transformation of the masses into the middle class? Will humans manage to exterminate the living dead once and for all? Or, maybe closer to reality, will the 99% finally take over the last bastions of the 1%?