“We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry glass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us-if at all-not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.”
– T.S. Eliot (The Hollow Men)
I have always admired poets. They dwell in worlds that I cannot fully realize or appreciate, worlds that drift in and out of focus: vivid one moment and ephemeral and lost the next. And as I watch Marc Forster’s boisterous World War Z, I think of the poetic zombie. Before you balk, let me attempt to dissuade you from thinking of World War Z as your typical big budget action film. Inherent in a feature film about zombies, beyond a brilliant potential for tension and despair, lies something more primal. The zombie quite literally animates death and forces the characters, and by extension the audience, to deal with that oft suppressed and unspoken inevitability. Namely, life ends, and if we the audience see the evidence of this tragic fact as a forceful antagonist, one who destroys without forethought or prejudice, then our internalized fears gain an easy outlet: twitched out hollow men, empty vessels.
However, in order for this cathartic exchange to take place, we must first be able to see ourselves in the creature. So, does World War Z lose something by turning the zombie into a CG mob, ants on a hill swarming over Philadelphia? Naturally, yes, but the film gains something too: fear of an unknown. Consider one of the first scenes in the film. Retired UN security officer Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) takes his family on the road, only to find his car gridlocked in the streets of Philadelphia. Not an unheard-of phenomenon, of course, but then a slow dread creeps in with little context to ground it. Police motorcycles speed past Gerry’s car, zig back and forth across the streets nervously, and a mass of helicopters weave circles across the sky—and for Gerry, the motionless traffic becomes conspicuous. Moments later, a massive explosion quivers in the background, several blocks down the road, and screams can be heard. A great flood of people begin to leave their cars, rushing toward Gerry and his family and away from something. And then the audience sees others among them, seemingly men and women but feral and dangerous. Soon, the fleeing masses fall to their pursuers, fall to the zombies who streak across the cluttered street, pouncing on pedestrians like dead-eyed cheetahs to a pack of gazelles.
If you will permit me to steal again from T.S. Eliot for a more explicit comparison, consider the line “Shape without form, shade without colour/paralysed force, gesture without motion.” The zombies do move, and they move fast, but the scale of the film keeps viewers from focusing on any one creature. Even when the zombies attack Gerry and his family, who commandeer an RV to escape the horde, they seem to rise from no where and vanish just as quickly: an impression left from quick cuts and a chain of close-ups. Forster’s World War Z diminishes much of the personal identification with death, the corporal form grotesquely reanimated, but his film does not suppress the impulse behind the need for such a creation. Instead, the zombies become an intangible in the film. We see blotches of red spread across a digitized world map, watch the spread of the infection as an statistical abstraction, though still conscious of its ill nature through use of the bloodied hue. The zombies lose their form and become a mob, they move but are unseen, and they paralyze the living more through suggestion than anything.
As Gerry leaves his family to investigate the cause of the infection, dread of the unknown persists as a simplified motif: calm before calamity. As Gerry, a young scientist named Andrew Fassbach (Elyes Gabel), and a small contingent of Navy SEALs land a plane in South Korea, they open the hanger doors and wait for that inevitable moment, for the brutal creatures to emerge from the dark of night. Naturally they do, and Gerry barely escapes with his life, but the darkness offers more to fear than the creatures themselves. After all, with a zombie you have a defense, you have a gun, you can do something. With darkness, all you can do is wait. Later, Gerry travels to Jerusalem, where a wall has been constructed to keep the creatures out and a tenuous peace flourishes. Still, the shadow of tragedy easily casts itself over the city and no can see it. They revel at keeping doom at arm’s length and invite all nearby refugees to join them in the holy city (the zombie apocalypse seemingly taking precedence over an ageless feud with the Palestinians). When Jerusalem is overrun, the massacre somehow feels far more heart-wrenching than the fall of Philadelphia, if only for the illusion of safety and control that precedes it.
What I build to with these examples is a more universal identification with the fear of death. Characters in the film cannot control the need to wait in the dark, nor can they keep the zombies at bay with a stone wall in Jerusalem or prevent a stampede in Philadelphia. Their fates are left predetermined and unalterable, and their lives end with little say as to when. All anyone in the film can do is wait and pray and eventually yield—ultimately, that is all anyone can do outside of the film as well. Ah, but this is Hollywood and we must have a protagonist who acts. So Gerry pursues patient zero, pursues a weakness to the infection, and keeps moving because stillness is death. As he pursues his goals without reward, encountering the calm before calamity again and again, the film grows more delicate and harrowing by the moment. The trouble with World War Z though (beyond a few brief pacing issues and the fact that Gerry’s family becomes irrelevant in the second act), is that the filmmakers want Gerry to succeed. This is a betrayal to the kind of story they are telling, a story about “the way the world ends/not with a bang but a whimper.” With these last stolen poetic words, I capture everything that is beautiful about this film, which forces its audience to see an end to all things and know they can only sit back and watch it unfold.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.
For T.S. Eliot’s full poem, click here.