It feels easy to succumb to your own internal “Panic Mode” right now; believe me, I totally get it. And it might feel counterintuitive right now to want to watch something a little nerve-jangling, or perhaps something which hits closer to the bone than expected. But if the surge in interest for revisiting pandemic-related movies like Contagion and Outbreak in recent weeks can tell us anything, it’s the surprising truth that maybe we just want to feel like we’re not alone in this. Maybe we want to see how it would all play out, this pandemic business, and how humanity could solve it. After all, movies are the ultimate “What if?” scenario, right?
The only movie really doing it for me when it comes to finding something soothing to latch onto even when it’s telling an intense, somewhat relatable, pandemic story is 2013’s World War Z — and I think you should watch it now, too. For my money, World War Z is as good a “pondering a pandemic” sort of film as Contagion or Outbreak, but arguably does better than both when it comes to comforting you as you watch by rooting it in a genre which is still a few steps removed from our reality. Plus, there’s Brad Pitt. Pitt makes everything better.
World War Z may feel like a distant memory considering it was practically infamous by the time it got to theaters. The movie was adapted from the 2006 Max Brooks novel of the same. The novel was styled as a Studs Terkel-esque collection of reports gathered from various individuals across globe in the years following a fast-spreading zombie virus which completely reshaped every facet of human existence. In the industry, the World War Z movie is perhaps best remembered not for what ended up on the screen, but for the arduous production process that came before it. Multiple screenwriters — Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski wrote the first script, with Matthew Michael Carnahan doing a rewrite, and later Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard coming in for third act rewrites, with Goddard ultimately penning the ending — and a laborious shoot, complete with seven weeks of reshoots, helped to create an aura of curiosity around the movie by the time it premiered.
Despite the long road to theaters, World War Z delivers. While it doesn’t necessarily directly adapt the stories in Brooks’ novel, it does take the same basic idea — analyzing a virus-based zombie outbreak through a geopolitical lens — and breathes life into it with a new set of characters and situations. The zombies of Brooks’ World War Z are very much the zombies of the World War Z movie: Fast-moving, ravenous, and programmed purely to spread the virus. Flesh is of little concern here, just infecting healthy folks at all costs. Seen through the eyes of Gerry Lane (Pitt), a former UN employee put back on the frontlines to help find a cure, the story of World War Z begins to take a global angle.
Here in the real world, we’re contending with an erratic news cycle full of ever-changing directives from elected officials while simply trying to do what’s best for us and our loved ones while trying to avoid the spread of COVID-19, a.k.a. the novel coronavirus. We’re social distancing, self-quarantining inside our homes, either sharing every bit of news we can on social media or sharing none to avoid potentially panicking others, trying to find solace in activities we like which help us forget about our woes, and await a vaccine which we know is still months away. It’s a paradigm-shifting moment for us as a nation and as a global community. How we respond, at every level, to preventing the spread of this virus while taking steps to protect and care for those we love are primal instincts. The way we live after this event will not look like the way we lived before this event.
This current, surreal reality we’re living in is a major reason why World War Z feels so accessible right now; the circumstances are near-perfectly mirrored. While the credits of World War Z are bit extra, with news clips and reality TV clips blending into a cacophony of blissfully ignorant panic, the opening sequence introducing us to Gerry, his wife Karin (Mireille Enos), and their daughters Rachel (Abigail Hargrove) and Constance (Sterling Jerins) before proceeding to take us through their first brush with the virus is perfectly orchestrated. It is traditional for movies within the zombie subgenre of horror to have at least one nail-biter of a scene showing what happens when the outbreak hits close to the protagonist’s home. In World War Z, Gerry and his family are trapped in bumper-to-bumper traffic and forced to see shelter as people run from some unseen horror, which quickly makes itself known as infected humans run rampant through the streets. Smart moments throughout the movie, beginning with Constance’s stuffed animal counting down as Gerry watches how long it takes for the virus to take hold of another person, make this sequence even more pulse-pounding while also perfectly articulating how disorienting it likely feels to be caught in the middle of a crisis.
This is just the first of many eerily brilliant things World War Z gets right about living in a situation where a global virus is seemingly spreading faster than any one person can contend with. COVID-19’s emergence as a major thread in the U.S. took time, and now in more recent weeks our awareness of it and grappling with its effects has felt all-consuming. As such, it’s hard to deny World War Z will readily get its hooks in you, providing you with something to grasp onto at this time.
But World War Z also succeeds in illustrating how viral outbreaks, zombie or otherwise, are geopolitical issues, too. Gerry’s travels through South Korea, Israel, and Wales and interactions with soldiers and doctors who are on the front lines of combating the zombie outbreak while trying to protect those who have yet to be infected. It offers a window into fictional solutions to a fictional problem which manage to mirror the very real solutions to preventing the spread of COVID-19 adopted by other countries like Italy and China. In World War Z, Gerry learns of Korea’s admittedly brutal solution to prevent the spread of the virus: removing the teeth of every citizen to stop biting. In Jerusalem, Israel, he sees a humanitarian response, with the country taking in refugees while utilizing the city’s ancient infrastructure to prevent the infected from getting in. For nearly two-thirds of World War Z‘s runtime, the movie makes an effort to explore what Brooks’ book explores: how international governments respond to a global health crisis when the public health concern spreads quicker than humans can manage it.
While World War Z has very relevant connections to our current moment, it is also very much a balm. Gerry is able to find a solution to the viral outbreak, allowing for some emotional catharsis as the movie reminds us there is a solution to any problem we face — however far-fetched it might be. Where Contagion or Outbreak walk us through pandemics very much rooted in reality, World War Z at least offers us the benefit of some distance in the scenario is explores. And again, there’s Brad Pitt. Pitt makes everything better.