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'World War Z' Zombies Reflect Pool of National Anxieties

Photo of John Anderson By John Anderson | Thompson on Hollywood June 11, 2013 at 11:54AM

Vampires have always represented rather specific sources of fear -- sex, blood (especially post-AIDS) and, of course, the loss of one’s immortal soul. Zombies, on the other hand, are a blank canvas -- whatever you’re afraid of, be it immigration, disease, terrorists or the Tea Party, zombies are ready to serve as metaphors.
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"World War Z"
"World War Z"

Vampires have always represented rather specific sources of fear -- sex, blood (especially post-AIDS) and, of course, the loss of one’s immortal soul. Zombies, on the other hand, are a blank canvas -- whatever you’re afraid of, be it immigration, disease, terrorists or the Tea Party, zombies are ready to serve as metaphors.

In Marc Forster's “World War Z,” the zombie population is a reflecting pool of national anxieties. Unlike, say, George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), in which atmospheric radiation was blamed (vaguely) for awakening the cemeteries, and turning corpses into subs for the Vietnamese, the allegorical parallels of “WWZ” are far less precise. In fact, the movie seems calculated to appeal -- if that’s the word -- to every phobia afflicting contemporary society.

Which producer and Plan B president Dede Gardner thinks is a good thing -- audiences can impose their own interpretations on what Forster is giving them: “I think the best kind of entertainment has that malleable and elastic quality, and allows audiences to impose their own values.”

But she laughed when we cited one scene (semi-spoiler alert) in which Brad Pitt’s U.N. investigator Gerry Lane is flying first-class on a plane bound from Israel to India and a zombie outbreak occurs in coach – which seems to mirror the way flight attendants view economy customers anyway, no? Gardner laughed out loud. “I never thought of that, but it’s funny.”

Open to far grimmer interpretation is the film’s sequence in Israel, which has spared itself zombiefication by getting its healthy population behind its walls. You want to see zombies as Palestinians? The movie seems to be saying “OK.” But then the grateful Jerusalem survivors start chanting and praying to God, and the deafening sound -- zombies, at least in “WWZ,” are aroused by noise -- provokes another offensive by the undead against the fortified city. If you want to see this as a critique of religion, “WWZ” seems to be saying “be our guest,” but the reality is that no matter what you’re afraid of, including fast-moving zombies, the movie is going to be happy to oblige.

"World War Z" hits theaters June 21. Our review roundup of the film is here; our interview with composer Marco Beltrami is here.

This article is related to: Reviews, Reviews, World War Z, Marc Forster, Brad Pitt


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.