Ever since George Romero popularised zombies in his landmark 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead, the undead have been a durable symbol in the cinematic imagination. As many critics have observed since the movie’s initial shock subsided, he had much more on his mind than brain-eating ghouls.
Romero’s ultra-low budget vision of the dead rising from their graves to feast on the living played on America’s still unfolding nightmare in Vietnam, and the traumatic violence of domestic racial and social unrest. In his subsequent films, the zombie apocalypse was a means for social commentary (on consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, militarism in Day of the Dead and Bush-era economic injustice in Land of the Dead.) The zombies increasingly represented the growing ranks of the dispossessed. Human society was revealed to be the true monster.
World War Z, produced by star Brad Pitt and directed by Mark Forster, is the latest entry in zombie cinema and it’s a far cry from Romero’s subversive social commentary. Instead, this overstuffed opus is haunted by the events of 9/11, and its prescriptions are depressingly familiar. The film’s bloated budget, reactionary politics and scattered narrative logic are an uncanny mirror of our own expensive and irrational War on Terror.
Based on the popular novel by Max Brooks, World War Z is about a sudden zombie pandemic that threatens human civilisation. It follows Brad Pitt’s character Gerry, a weary UN investigator, on a global hunt to discover the cause of the zombie epidemic and find a cure.
Where Romero used the perceived brainlessness of the zombie genre to stage a left wing critique of society, the zombies in World War Z are deployed to stoke our worst fears of global terrorism. This is made explicit in two of the film’s set pieces, a harrowing early scene in Philadelphia that evokes the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre (as Spielberg’s War of the Worlds did before it) and a later sequence on an airplane which references the doomed Flight 93.
However, it is the film’s lengthy detour to Israel which is its most overtly allegoric and problematic sequence. In the course of his investigation, Gerry learns that the Mossad had advance knowledge of the zombie threat and kept it a secret from the world. This is an oblique reference to some of the more controversial 9/11 conspiracies about Israel’s supposed foreknowledge of the attacks, and it briefly opens the film up to charges of anti-Semitism.
Gerry then flies to Jerusalem (identified in the film’s titles as “Jerusalem, Israel”) to meet a Mossad chief, Jurgen Warmbrunn (Ludi Boeken). He initially mistrusts Gerry, a UN investigator who has written critical things about Israel in a book. Warmbrunn then gives a speech about the historical need for Jewish vigilance in the face of existential threats. He references the Holocaust, Munich and the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, all of which are connected, in this fairly obvious dialogue, to the current zombie threat.
What happens next is jaw dropping in is audacity. Warmbrunn reveals that the walls around Israel (which in real life are apartheid walls), were actually re-designed to create a fortress to protect humanity from the coming zombie threat. Not just a fortress for Israelis, but for everyone. He shows Gerry an open checkpoint where the benevolent Israelis are allowing Arabs to immigrate into Israel for safety. We see Arabs passing through an open border, warmly greeted in brotherhood by Israelis. Israeli flags and Palestinian flags fly in harmony. This is pure liberal fantasy, and one that erases the Palestinian struggle. In this film, real-life walls of apartheid are shown to be not only necessary, but an act of tremendous benevolence, enabling racial harmony.
But the utopia is short-lived. This easing of borders becomes Jerusalem’s downfall. At the crossing, the noise of an Arab woman’s celebratory song attracts a zombie horde. The undead form a pyramid to climb over the apartheid wall as the valiant IDF tries to kill them. This is a very disturbing image. It is impossible not to see this scene as an apocalyptic evocation of Israeli fears of Arab invasion, whether through literal acts of violence or “demographic threat”. The city is overtaken by zombies, as Jerusalem’s residents are quickly overpowered, bitten, infected and turned. Zombies have long embodied white fears of miscegenation, making this a particularly fraught scene. Ultimately, in compromising security for brotherhood, Israel’s worst fears are realised.
In the final escape from Jerusalem, an IDF soldier sacrifices himself with a grenade to help Gerry get away (ironically, a suicide bombing). Gerry and a wounded female IDF soldier (Daniella Kertesz) are the only survivors and become the film’s central heroes – the United States and sister Israel (with a benevolent assist from the UN) working together to save civilisation from an incomprehensible, unstoppable terror.
Popular films rarely announce their politics with the clarity that World War Z does in its defense of the Israeli security state and its apartheid wall. Unsurprisingly, global reaction to the film has been sharply divided. The Times of Israel approvingly declared World War Z “the greatest piece of cinematic propaganda for Israel since ‘Exodus.'” Meanwhile in Turkey, censors removed references to “Israel” and replaced them with “Middle East,” fooling no one.
Most telling was the response of many in the Western media, who gestured to the controversy surrounding the film, without unpacking it. “Curious wall draws speculation as to movie’s message” was the bland headline from the Associated Press. Asawin Suebsaeng, writing for the liberal website Mother Jones, acknowledged World War Z‘s improbable Israel sequence but then avoided its implications, simply suggesting, “If you would like to infer any bizarre or cynical political allegory in any of that, please be my guest”.
Here, as in the larger discussion about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, there’s an assertion of phony even-handedness and a failure to confront the stark injustice of the occupation. It’s as though these critics, like their counterparts in political punditry, want to cover their eyes and ears from the real life horrors of occupation.
In his defense of the radical underpinnings of Romero’s cinema, the late film critic Robin Wood observed that zombies symbolise “the return of the repressed” other in monstrous form. This could also serve as an explanation for the West’s unending War on Terror, where no wall is high enough. World War Z‘s truncated finale leaves viewers hanging for a sequel, as Gerry grimly informs us that the war is only just beginning.
Matt Cornell is a writer, artist and film festival programmer in Los Angeles.