The Telegraph asked me to write about zombies to tie in with the UK release of World War Z. Here’s the beginning of that piece:
Welcome to the zombie apocalypse, starring Brad Pitt. “We’ve lost the East Coast. Moscow’s still dark. Life as we know it will come to an end in 90 days.” After rewrites and reshoots and overruns and creative issues and Vanity Fair exposés, Marc Forster’s World War Z, an adaptation of Max Brooks’ bestselling World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, is set to invade cinemas across the globe. With an estimated $200 million budget, it’s the most expensive zombie movie ever made.
Zombies were once confined to geek pursuits: horror videos, computer games, and comic books. But not any more. They had already stormed the mainstream when Time magazine dubbed them the “Official Monster of the Recession” in 2009, and knockabout romps like Zombieland played to the sort of audiences who would never have dreamt of going to see a horror film back in 1983, when zombies figured prominently on the DPP’s list of “video nasties” prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. Yet now they’re on primetime TV!
To read on, please click on the pic above to be taken to the Telegraph website. (The stills from World War Z were boring, so I used some from The Battery instead.) And please click here to be taken to my Top Ten Zombie Films. Don’t forget to vote in the poll.
While writing my zombie article, I sought quotes from Kim Newman, author of Nightmare Movies, and Jeremy Gardner, writer-director-star of the low-budget zombie movie The Battery, which I’d seen at Imagine Film Festival in Amsterdam in April. Both kindly furnished me with excellent statements from which to quote. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the space to use more than brief extracts (and the subs cut these further before publication in the print edition) but since both statements are worth reading I’m running them here in full.
Kim Newman’s point of view is (like mine) that of a lifelong horror fan who has seen a lot of zombie movies and is now getting a bit fed up with them.
It does strike me that making a big budget zombie apocalypse picture this year is about as timely and up to the moment as making a CB-themed trucker comedy or a lambada musical. It’s especially odd that Night of the Living Dead – a transgressive, game-changing, far-from-Hollywood film that inspired a whole generation of filmmakers to make challenging, socially engaged, shocking horror films – now inspires Hollywood to make the same film over and over and over, and then do it on TV as The Walking Dead, or tart it up as genial comedy Zombieland, or this big-budget footnote.
To me, it’s a shame that the film that brought bite and meaning to horror has led to work so denuded of those qualities – I assume you can’t say that the mere fact that the Telegraph would commission an article on this is a key symptom of the end of the line for the zombie, but I suppose they can keep trudging on after they’re dead or useless or pointless because that’s what zombies do.
Incidentally, how long has it been since there was a zombie movie which was not an apocalypse movie?
Jeremy Gardner’s point of view is that of a low-budget film-maker whose debut feature has zombies in it. I’d asked him to elaborate on what he’d said after the screening of The Battery at Amsterdam’s Imagine festival, which I vaguely recalled as being something along the lines of, “I didn’t think anyone would want to watch me and Adam in a relationship movie.” And I think he has some interesting things to say about low-budget film-making, particularly with regard to the horror genre.
It’s quite serendipitous, you asking us to comment in conjunction with the World War Z release. Originally, our distribution company wanted to release The Battery in October, a decision I thought was uninspired and would have lumped us in with a hundred other Halloween releases. I countered with the idea of releasing in June, playing David to World War Z‘s goliath. A six thousand dollar zombie movie versus one at nearly three hundred million.
There were a few reasons behind the decision:
1: There will be a lot of people who love the book who HATE the adaptation. I thought we might be able to be an alternative.
2: The Zombie bubble may officially, finally – and quite spectacularly – POP if World War Z is a disaster, and then for us to release months later would be a terrible idea.
3: If, by chance, World War Z is a runaway smash, our little film can act as the pilot fish on the flank of a great white shark. Feeding off of it the whole way.
Now that I’ve finished that little rant, to answer your questions:
1: The budget was in fact, six thousand dollars. I originally asked ten friends, most of them restaurant co-workers, to each give me six hundred dollars in exchange for a small stake in the film. I wrote the film around the budget, and asked for small amounts of money so if the movie was an unqualified failure, no one would lose their car or house or hate me for it.
2: I don’t quite remember the context of the quote from the Imagine Q&A, but I can expound a little in that arena. I happen to think, with very little exception, horror is the only genre micro-budget filmmakers can use to sneak past the gatekeepers of the industry. And it is precisely because it is the only genre with mass appeal that doesn’t require a name actor or recognizable face to be successful. Almost every massive horror hit in at least the last fifteen years has been carried off by unknowns or journeyman actors. People don’t see horror films to see movie stars, they see them to be scared, thrilled, unnerved, affected. If anything, an A-list actor only makes the suspension of disbelief more difficult.
So, I think what I meant when I said no one wanted to see us in a relationship movie, is that it is almost impossible for a micro-budget drama to gain a foothold with a mainstream audience. If our film was ONLY about two men with different sensibilities slowly coming to understand and rely on the other, no one would give a shit. It is the cloak of genre trappings that enables it to find an audience.
What I think is really funny is that, I probably won’t go see that hypothetical low-budget drama myself. But, I WILL go see a stupid horror film and then be disappointed that the characters were thin and uninteresting. We want our dramas dressed up, to thrill us or scare us, but we also want our horror to move us. At least I do.
3: I’m honestly not sure why zombies are a useful device; and quite honestly I don’t think they really are that useful. At least from a production standpoint they are hard to pull off realistically on a small budget. Story-wise, they tend to be used as a vehicle for gore, or a catalyst to force humans into a room to yell at one another. Even I am guilty of the latter. The days when Romero was using them allegorically, to shine a light on bigger social issues, seem to be gone.
My intention was to explore human behavior on an intimate scale. Rather than watch the world burn, I thought it could be interesting to watch a psyche wither away. To watch one man become feral, and watch another one lose hope. It isn’t exactly an original idea, but in all my years watching zombie movies, I hadn’t seen it done that way.
4: I think World War Z could actually be good for low budget zombie filmmakers whether it works or doesn’t. If it does work, then more filmmakers will be allowed to make their zombie film. Hollywood will see it as a sign that zombies are what people want, so they should give them more. Unfortunately that will also mean a glut of really bad ones in its wake to try and capitalize, but someone out there somewhere will make something worth watching. The hard part will be finding it.
If it fails, surely people will claim it the final death knell for a sub-genre that some would say has already over-stayed its welcome. But it won’t stop that brilliant filmmaker who just knows their film is new and different and reinvents the genre from making it anyway. That’s the beautiful thing about being a filmmaker today, at least on a micro scale; you don’t have to ask permission.
Many thanks to Kim and Jeremy; I know for a fact they were both incredibly busy when I asked for their help, but they came through anyway.
Also, may I point you gently in the direction of the one zombie story I have written. The title is Paris When It Sizzles and it’s part of the excellent “mosaic novel” Zombie Apocalypse! Fightback created by Stephen Jones and published by Robinson:
ADDENDUM: SOME RANDOM THOUGHTS ABOUT WORLD WAR Z
World War Z is a film of two halves – half big budget spectacular, half low budget TV-type sequences. It feels a bit cobbled together. It has its moments, but – as you’d expect from a family-friendly 15-rated zombie film, it’s not at all gory, no children are harmed, Brad’s family never feels seriously threatened (imagine if one of his two small daughters had been turned into a zombie! but of course we know that was never on the cards) and the intensity of the two big budget set pieces is dissipated in the clumsy plotting surrounding them.
It doesn’t have three acts but four, interspersed with intervals reminding us that Brad Pitt’s character has a family, short bursts of static exposition, plus a mini set-piece set on a Belarus Airways flight from Jerusalem to Cardiff. I’ll repeat that – Jerusalem to Cardiff. I’m assuming the production was haemorrhaging money by this stage, so it couldn’t opt for somewhere more picturesque. Not that Wales can’t be picturesque – it’s just that here it’s about as cinematic as Emmerdale Farm. (I’m clutching at straws here – I’ve never seen Emmerdale Farm; I was just trying to think of a rural British TV soap.)
ACT 1) Philadelphia
ACT 2) South Korea
ACT 3) Jerusalem
ACT 4) Wales
Of these acts, only Philadelphia and Jerusalem look as though they belong in a film that reportedly cost over $200 million – the scale and spectacle of these are astonishing, and something a smaller film couldn’t possibly have pulled off. South Korea and Wales, on the other hand, both looked as though they were shot in a BBC soundstage on a Doctor Who budget. (I’m aware, thanks to the article in Vanity Fair, that Wales was a late replacement for the final battle in Moscow that was filmed but then ditched.) The action actually devolved into the sort of running-along-corridors scenario more usually seen in low budget B-movies, which is not something you expect from a blockbuster.
You’re on a life-or-death mission against unstoppable bloodthirsty creatures who are attracted to noise. Naturally, you forget to switch off your mobile phone, and your wife calls you just as you’re tippy-toeing through a undead-infested zone. (I was so annoyed by this I snapped my pen in half. If I can remember to put my mobile on mute in the cinema, then so can Brad when he’s surrounded by zombies.)
Marc Forster didn’t learn a thing from the criticism of the crappy way he directed action scenes in Quantum of Solace, which were so sloppily done I literally got a headache trying to work out who was chasing whom, and where each vehicle was in relation to the others. His idea of filming action seems to be to wave the camera around and then chop the results up into tiny pieces in the editing room, and then bung it all together so audiences can’t tell what the hell is happening. I started dreading the zombie attacks – not because they were zombies attacking, but because I knew we’d be in for more of Marc’s shake ‘n smash, and I was worried I’d get another headache.
Far more effective are the quieter moments – such as the slow but effective build-up at the beginning when Brad and his family are stuck in traffic, and we gradually realise that this is no ordinary traffic jam (it would have been even more effective if we hadn’t already seen most of this sequence in the trailer) or Brad and his wife putting their hands up when they see the cop in the supermarket, only for the cop to ignore them completely and start helping himself to supplies. I also liked the burnt out room in South Korea – a sort of zombie version of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation crossed with the visit to the Norwegian camp in John Carpenter’s The Thing. What exactly happened here, and how is it significant?
Anyway, if you want to survive a zombie apocalypse, you need to be Brad Pitt or someone related to him. It’s not entirely explained why only Brad can stop the zombies, but one assumes this has something to do with his remarkable survival rate, culminating in a plane crash that kills everyone on board except him and the young woman sitting next to him.
I still prefer The Battery.