24 Lies a Second: Night of the Living Dee

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Night of the Living Dee

All right, some context: I first heard about Max Brooks' novel World War Z at some point in 2007, finally got my hands on a copy at the end of that year, and found it to be one of those rare, unputdownably brilliant pieces of writing. I actually gave that original copy away to a friend, I wanted to share the pleasure of reading it so much (this is an almost unheard-of occurrence). And while I was reading it I couldn't help thinking what a brilliant film it would make, if handled properly – I could imagine how it would play out, pictured the various scenes in my head, and so on, even while realising it would be a ridiculously uncommercial film.

Well, they've finally made a movie of World War Z, and it is directed by Marc Forster, probably best-known for helming the unloved Bond movie Quantum of Solace. It bears very little resemblance to the film which was in my head all those years ago – which is another way of saying it's nothing like the source novel.

Bradley Pitt plays Gerald, an ex-UN investigator (you know that ex- isn't long for this world) who has retired to spend time with his wife (Mireille Enos) and children. The wife and children have no real personalities beyond being touchingly wan, vulnerable, and worried about him, and they're only really in the film to provide a plot device and some coarse-grained sentiment.

Another day for Gerald and the family in Philadelphia takes an unfortunate turn when society suddenly falls to a zombie apocalypse, and they find themselves in New Jersey, which is a barren, terrifying wasteland (and the zombie apocalypse has made it even worse). Luckily Gerald's old boss has them airlifted to a ship in the mid-Atlantic where what's left of the UN and the armed forces are trying to come up with a response to the crisis.

Needless to say, the UN needs Gerald to investigate the source of the zombie outbreak so they can come up with some sort of solution to the crisis, and if he doesn't, he and the kids will be thrown to the undead. Needless to say Gerald signs on for this frankly dodgy mission and is soon flying off on a whistle-stop global tour that will take him to destinations as exotic and far-flung as South Korea, Jerusalem, and Cardiff...

Let's be fair about this: World War Z was always going to be a difficult film to adapt into a conventional narrative. The genius of the novel is to look at the basic idea of a zombie apocalypse in a very rational, comprehensive way – how could a zombie outbreak get started? How would it spread? How would governments and other powerful bodies realistically respond to it? What would the end-game be? (This last is a point most movies are quite vague about.)

The result is a book without a central character or a single plotline, but one which is almost an anthology of accounts of people caught up in the outbreak, from its earliest beginnings, to institutional disbelief and/or exploitation, to gathering panic and chaos, then calamity and retreat and ultimately the fight-back against the putrescent menace. It takes place over a timescale of years, and its conclusion is full of ambiguities and uncertainties.

None of this is in the film. In fact, Forster's movie isn't much more of an adaptation of World War Z than any other zombie film from the last decade. There is, to be fair, a reasonably lengthy section set in Israel which does draw heavily from an early section of the book, but this is all. (The whole issue of the origins of the zombie outbreak has been changed, quite probably to avoid offending a large and lucrative foreign market Hollywood studios are desperate to break into.) The rest is very generic big-budget zombie stuff.

It's not even as if this is a particularly good generic big-budget zombie movie: the CGI-rendered undead megaswarms are admittedly impressive as they swarm up the sides of buildings, but the performance of at least one featured zombie provoked sniggers at the viewing I attended. The performances are a little variable too – Daniella Kertesz is quite good as a soldier who becomes Pitt's sidekick, but Peter Capaldi is painfully all at sea as a boffin whose scientific speciality appears to be describing in detail what's happening in front of him and everyone else in the scene, just for the benefit of anyone in the audience who may be a bit slow on the uptake.

Then again, Capaldi is just in the final third of the movie, which was extensively rewritten and reshot for reasons which remain somewhat obscure but were apparently political (again). The ending they have come up with is, to say the least, weak, not to mention cheap-looking given the epic scale of most of the rest of the film. There is a definite sense of 'is that all?' come the final credits starting to roll.

I suspect that World War Z, the movie, will be a massive disappointment to anyone who read and loved the book – I can't imagine a general audience being particularly impressed, either. Still, I suppose that the movie retains just enough of the unique flavour and qualities of the source material to perhaps entice a few of the audience to check it out – which in and of itself is just about enough to justify its existence.

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