If you saw World War Z, then chances are good you remember it as a middle-of-the-road zombie flick. It had some fun special effects and cast Brad Pitt in a lead role. It was one of the more memorable instances of humanity finding a kind of cure (or at least a defense) that meant it might be possible to come back from the onrushing zombie apocalypse.
If you read the book, though, you probably remember seeing one of the greatest wastes of potential that’s ever been featured in the horror genre.
Seriously, Read The Book
If you haven’t read World War Z, it’s by the esteemed author Max Brooks. If that name sounds familiar, it might be because you’ve read his other work, The Zombie Survival Guide. Or it might be that you’re familiar with his father Mel Brooks and his body of work.
Either way, World War Z is a hefty tome that’s set up like a history book composed of interviews with survivors of the great zombie war. It starts with the accepted origin point of the outbreak and talks about how the more rural, remote areas fell first. And then it depicts what happened when the threat grew. We see veterans who had to relearn the arts of war in order to fight this new enemy. We hear from neighborhood militia volunteers who watched the home front. We see what happened to people who fled to the woods, thinking they could just turn it into one, big bonfire party until the government took care of the threat. We hear about the LMOEs (Last Men on Earth), who booby-trapped entire city blocks and were almost a bigger threat than the zombies when the army rolled back over and reclaimed, and we find out about the Redeker Plan, which was a brutal, awful strategy that might have saved everyone.
Not only that, but if you listen to the audio book, Alan Alda was one of the readers!
While World War Z the movie is all right, it will be forever damned by being such a bland, lackluster execution of the sheer wealth of world building, perspectives, history, and character variety that we got in the actual book it was based on.
Once More, With Feeling
So what should be done with World War Z? Well, you don’t necessarily need to scrap the film that was made, declare the whole thing non-canon, and start from scratch. However, one of the reasons the book was so much stronger than the film was that the film chose to put a narrow focus onto Brad Pitt’s character and how his actions directly impacted the huge, looming crisis of the walking dead. This makes the film easier to follow, but it also fails to show the zombie apocalypse presented as a huge, systemic failure, and instead turns it into your traditional heroic character doing the heroic thing to save the world. Or at least making the discovery that allows the world to be saved with the hard work and sweat of all the other, less important characters.
In order to fix that, you need a longer-form medium. Perhaps something like a Netflix original series would work.
With a series (especially one freed from the censorship of violence, sex, curse words, etc. that you have to deal with on more traditional networks), you would have the opportunity to tell a fuller, more fleshed-out version of the narrative that Brooks presented. Not only that, but a series would allow you to decentralize the story we’re seeing. Rather than putting all of our focus onto the efforts of a single person or following around a small group of survivors like other popular zombie-based TV shows that will go unnamed, we could utilize the documentary-style setup. Instead of each season being a chapter in the lives and stories of the cast, it would allow us to tell the story of the zombie apocalypse itself.
If you read my 5 “Predator” Movies We Should Have Had By Now post on this very site, then you know I’ve got suggestions for how to structure this.
For the first season, I’d do something that zombie apocalypse shows tend to avoid: show how things got so out of control. Brooks is well-versed in emergency response and survival strategies, and it’s why the world he makes falls apart so realistically. A localized horror in the unseen parts of the world is covered up at first, and ignoring it allows it to fester. It spreads through mass transit, and the people’s sheer refusal to believe what’s happening allows the dead to gain numbers. The Battle of Yonkers is the set piece I’d end the first season on, giving us a retreat and making it clear that the dead have won this day.
When season two starts out, we’re seeing the world struggling to hold on. We can focus more on the things people are doing to try to survive. The runaways in the northern woods are facing starvation and lack of resources, often resorting to cannibalism. Half-crazy survivalists in the cities have declared themselves the Grand High Warlords of Duluth. Once we show how desperate things are not just in America but across the world, we introduce the Redeker Plan. Let it sit in front of the audience, making them wonder if we’re really going to leave walled-in cities in the middle of Dead Zones as bait to slow the advance of the zombies, and then at the end of the season make it supremely clear that yes, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.
The third season is the triumphant return of humanity. We show how the military forces of the world restructure their training and tactical plans. We see communities coming together to retake their homes, and once all the fighting is over, we get a clear snapshot of a changed world. Nothing is ever the same, and though we’re still here, we’ve learned important lessons about what it takes to overcome disaster on a monumental scale.
Producers might want more than three seasons, but you could always expand certain chapters. Maybe you could bring in some lost chronicles if the audience isn’t ready to let the world go when you wrap up that last installment. Just my two cents, but I think that would-be worlds are better than the generic zombie vehicle we ended up with in theaters.