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The Ten Zombie Films You Must See before You Reanimate

With the recent release of World War Z and the upcoming season four of The Walking Dead, zombies in pop culture are harder to kill than the (ahem) real thing. So are “best of” lists. Even Rolling Stone made a “ten best zombie movies” list, so what follows is hardly original in conception or content. Still, some of you asked for it, so here it is—my list of the ten zombie films you have to see before you reanimate and try to eat your kids. Feel free to disagree, kvetch, and counter-argue. I’m pretty sure I’ll forget approximately six hundred movies that should be on this list.

First, a few rules: believe it or not, I haven’t seen every single zombie film ever made. I will therefore decline to cheat and put anything on this list that I haven’t experienced first-hand (sorry, Fido and Plague of the Zombies; I’ll get to you one of these days).

Second, I won’t list any movies that are what I like to call “zombie-adjacent”—films in which the hordes often act like zombies but are not, in fact, reanimated corpses. That forces me to leave out several movies I really dig and would still recommend that you see before you shuffle off this mortal coil, come back as a zombie, and spend all your time, uh, shuffling around this mortal coil.

Such movies include 28 Days Later and its good-but-inferior sequel, 28 Weeks Later; Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez’s excellent modern-day grindhouse flick; and the Evil Dead films. I have seen Raimi’s trilogy on some zombie lists, though I’m not sure why. Sure, a couple of corpses come back and make trouble, but mostly, it’s about spirits and what they do with live bodies.

Other films that are worth watching but have no place on this list: George A. Romero’s The Crazies and the 2010 remake starring Timothy Olyphant, two more zombie-adjacent flicks; and Drew Goddard’s fine meta work The Cabin in the Woods, which features zombies but also a couple dozen other supernatural baddies.

Third, I can’t in good conscience write about anything I saw years ago but was too drunk or exhausted to remember. Thus, at least one staple of zombie top ten lists, Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, doesn’t make the cut, through no fault of its own.

You could easily argue that Return of the Living Dead should be on here, given that it is generally credited for introducing zombies that hunger for brains, not flesh (a stereotype that does not hold in most canonical texts) and, according to some critics, the concept of fast-moving, even intelligent zombies. It’s fun in its own way, but it deviates so strongly from the visions of people like George A. Romero that I would only be putting it on the list because of its difference. I’d still advise you to watch it at least once, and if you’re a fan, feel free to substitute it for either #9 or #10 below.

On to the list…

10.       White Zombie (1932), directed by Victor Halperin. White Zombie

This movie, which many viewers still find creepy, features an interesting performance from Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi, long before he torpedoed his career with drugs and starring roles in Ed Wood movies. One of the taglines: “See them dug from the grave and put to work as slaves to murder!” Set in Haiti, the film locates zombies in exotic locales inhabited by dark-skinned people, which allows for the continuing comfort of the first-world viewer. It also both contributes to and reflects the early 20th century’s problematic racial attitudes in ways that later zombie films engage more directly and complexly. Madge Bellamy’s very white protagonist, Madeline, is reduced to a zombie slave on a Haitian plantation, providing an interesting wrinkle to any allegorical readings of race. Some critics believe that the movie can be read as an anti-imperialist text; they suggest that the characters’ attitudes toward Madeline, the nature of zombification, and the plantation itself mirror Western colonial attitudes. All that is well and good. But this movie is on my list mainly because it is widely considered the first zombie film, and if you’re going to delve into the canon, you might as well start with cinema’s version of Patient Zero. You might love it or find it cheesy, badly acted, and horribly dated, but you should experience it for yourself before the inevitable zombie apocalypse.

9. [REC] (2007), directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza. [REC]

Purists may well cry foul here and accuse me of breaking rule #2. They may well be right, and if you think so, feel free to strike this one out and replace it with what you feel is my most egregious omission. I, however, am giving [REC] a pass that I did not give films like 28 Days Later for a couple of reasons: a) the antagonists act like zombies, including through their stubborn refusal to die from anything but a head shot, and b) the film itself leaves their exact condition ambiguous. While the movie pretty much tells us that their illness seems to be viral, such that it can pass from animals to humans, many zombie outbreaks in cinema are similarly sourced. [REC] suggests, near the end, a possible non-zombie cause of the outbreak, and it is often unclear whether the victims are truly reanimated or if their zombie-like condition is merely the last stage of some illness. Enough ambiguity exists for me to include this film here.

And, as horror films go, it’s a doozy. A Spanish movie, it may well test your ocular and cognitive abilities while you watch the action and read the dialogue simultaneously. The plot centers on a young female reporter and her cameraman, Pablo, as they cover a local fire company’s night shift. When the company answers an emergency call about an ill woman who won’t come out of her apartment, the reporter and cameraman tag along, only to find themselves quarantined inside the building as the occupants and would-be rescuers are transformed into vicious creatures that rip into human flesh.

The film is probably best known for its cinematographic conceit. We see the entire film from Pablo the cameraman’s perspective; his handheld camera is the only camera used, which immerses the viewer in the characters’ experience. We only see what Pablo films; we only hear what he can pick up on his camera microphone. It’s unsettling and scary, perhaps even more so than The Blair Witch Project.

The acting here is much better than you’ll see in White Zombie or the Romero movies, which you have to grade on a sliding scale. You can’t expect Academy Award-winning performances when you’re working with an unknown cast and a 73-cent budget. [REC] has more to work with, but it’s still a horror film, so don’t expect to discover the next Olivier or Brando.

One of the movie’s taglines— “Whatever You Witness….. Never Stop Recording”—might well be the basic direction for any reality TV cameraman.  [REC] was remade in America as Quarantine, a nearly shot-for-shot remake. But I would seek out the original and watch it first. Tell Netflix I sent you.

8.         Day of the Dead (1985), directed by George A. Romero.  Day of the Dead

Some zombiephiles feel very strongly that this movie is the second-best Romero entry in the canon. Here, it appears at #8 mainly because I’ve seen it less than the others and don’t feel comfortable placing it higher.

In Day of the Dead, the apocalypse has already happened. The plot focuses on the few survivors holed up in a military bunker. The scientists there conduct gruesome experiments on the zombies as the survivors try, with varying degrees of success, to cope with the realities and tensions of their lives. The scientists are convinced that the dead can be reconditioned, and much of the film is spent exploring zombie physiology and psychology. In fact, much of the fanboy love for the movie stems from the explanations for why zombies eat human flesh and so forth.

That’s all well and good, but you’ll also be treated to some old-fashioned zombie attacks. Come for the blood and guts; stay for the course on zombie motivation.

7.         World War Z (2013), directed by Mark Forster.  World War Z

Elsewhere I have already expressed my admiration for this movie’s pulse-pounding action sequences, for how it represents an evolution in zombie methodology (the swarming behaviors that mimic certain animals, the idea that zombies can tell the difference between a good meal and a bad one), the way the production managed to snag a prestigious director and star (Brad frickin’ Pitt!!!). I have also articulated my problems with the film’s character development and its over-dependence on CGI. Plus, there’s this issue, to quote Kalene Westmoreland: “a lot of these problems wouldn’t have happened if they just had a can of WD-40.” Seriously, they spend five minutes talking about how the creatures are attracted to sound, and then they take the world’s squeakiest collection of bicycles to the plane? Every door in the WHO facility has to creak like it belongs in a haunted house?

Here, though, the positives truly outweigh the negatives. World War Z lives up to its title; it takes a global view of the zombie apocalypse, demonstrating that these filmmakers truly understand the scale implied in the term. Philadelphia collapses. Israel is overrun. And after all that international carnage, the climax is surprisingly intimate and intense, providing both a break from and a logical extension of the larger issues.

If you haven’t seen this movie yet and you’re a fan of zombies, action movies, apocalypse narratives, or Brad Pitt, get thee to your local theater. If you have seen it, spread the word.

6.         Zombieland (2009), directed by Ruben Fleischer. Zombieland

World War Z had an Oscar nominee in Brad Pitt. Zombieland has four: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, and Bill Murray, who plays himself in a hilarious small role. The other major star, Emma Stone, is a Screen Actors Guild award winner and one of Hollywood’s hottest young actors. Therefore, if you’re looking for A-list acting and recognizable faces, you can’t find a better zombie flick than this.

The premise: zombies have taken over the world (or, at least, America). Our young protagonist, Columbus (so named because that’s where he wants to go), decides to see if his parents are still alive, so he takes to the road, where he encounters the eccentric, zombie-hating, Twinkie-loving  Tallahassee (Harrelson); the beguiling Wichita (Stone); and young-but-not-helpless Little Rock (Breslin). Columbus has survived because of his “rules,” which could double as a meta lesson on what every dumb character in horror films never does: limber up before you enter any unknown territory, in case you have to run. Work on your cardio. Always “double-tap” seemingly dead zombies. Always look in the back seat, etc. Echoing Randy’s rules for surviving a horror film as seen in the first Scream, these rules are winking, self-referential, and absolutely true.

Characterization here runs deeper than in most of the genre’s entries. We know backstories. We understand motivations. Even though the characters sometimes seem to come from central casting—the sensitive but competent geek, the snarling tough guy with a secretly soft heart, the love interest who might be a femme fatale—they transcend their stock origins and become living, breathing, wisecracking people you will care about.

Zombieland is more funny than scary, although parts of the film do provide genuinely frightening scenes, especially near the end. This is not a criticism. The often lighthearted tone provides a nice counterpoint to the highly serious, doom-and-gloominess of most zombie films. Plus, Zombieland features an awesome soundtrack: Metallica! The Black Keys!

Fun, often funny, and sometimes gory, Zombieland deserves its place in anyone’s top ten. If you haven’t seen it, prepare to have a lot of fun.

5.         Dawn of the Dead (2004), directed by Zack Snyder.  Dawn of the Dead 2004

We enter the top five with what is, by far, Snyder’s best film to date. Though fanboys and -girls say that Romero’s zombie classic did not need to be remade, I really like this movie. Sure, it lacks the social consciousness of the original. Romero’s Dawn was set in a mall to critique our out-of-control consumer culture, while this film seems to appropriate the setting merely because it’s logically safer than the other options. But you know what? That’s fine with me. I still have the original when I want to think. This movie, by contrast, is an exercise in inertia, in pure kineticism.

The cast doesn’t quite equal Zombieland or World War Z in terms of A-list prestige, but the actors are all game. Ving Rhames plays, well, pretty much every Ving Rhames character you’ve ever seen. Sarah Polley provides a strong performance as our protagonist, and Ty Burrell kills as the absolute polar opposite of his Modern Family character. Throw in Jake Weber as an unlikely hero, Mekhi Phifer as a troubled family man, and excellent character actor Michael Kelly as the meanest mall cop you’ve ever seen.

You like gore? This film’s got it. Watch out for chainsaws, dude. You want fast zombies? There ain’t no shufflin’ goin’ on here. You want zombie mob scenes, gallows humor, strong uses of lighting? Check, check, and check. Plus, the worst newborn since Rosemary’s baby (well, not counting Trainspotting)!

Bottom line: this film isn’t high art, but it’s good. When it starts out with Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around,” you hope the rest of the movie will live up to it. It does. Stick around for the super-bleak ending over the credits.

4.         Night of the Living Dead (1968), directed by George A. Romero.  Night of the Living Dead

Not the one that started it all, but it sure seems like it. The first Romero zombie flick, it came with this tagline, among others: “If it doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead!” There’s some truth to that.

If you’ve never seen the film, well, it pretty much establishes the tropes for every other zombie movie you’ve ever seen. Outbreak of the dead rising and eating the living, with scientists providing, at best, a working theory as to what started it? Yep. A core group of characters thrown together by chance? Got it. Internal strife over how to handle the situation? Check. Our heroes finding themselves trapped and surrounded by the dead? Uh huh. Zombie infestation of the supposedly safe zone? Right. And if you think it took more contemporary texts like Snyder’s movie or The Walking Dead to trot out the zombified children, you’re wrong.

NotLD starts out in a cemetery, with Barbra and her dickish brother Johnny visiting graves. When Barbra feels creeped out, Johnny says, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra!” Little does he know they’re real, and they’re coming to get him, too. When Johnny buys it five minutes into the film, you aren’t sorry, but you’ve got to feel sorry for Judith O’Dea, the actress playing Barbra, because she has to spend the rest of the movie playing either catatonic or whiny. Throw in the bickering couple Harry and Helen Cooper and the more likeable but also more forgettable young couple Tom and Judy, and you may actually find yourself rooting for the zombies.

The main character, Ben, is extraordinary, considering the time period’s attitudes. Played by Duane Jones, Ben is our protagonist, and when the ever-angry Harry Cooper gets out of line, Ben slaps him around until he shuts up. Ben also acts as Barbra’s caretaker, and, when Harry finally goes too far, Ben’s method of dealing with him is both shocking and inevitable.

Why is all this so unusual? Because Ben is the only black member of an otherwise lily-white cast. Many critics, including one of my grad-school colleagues, have written about NotLD as an allegory for American racial attitudes in the Civil Rights era, and the characters’ different generational attitudes toward a strong black man seem to support such readings, as do the searing images of pale-white zombies mobbing Ben throughout the film. The ending’s indelible imagery will disturb you, and this, I think, is part of what Romero intends.

Add in to all the social commentary a lot of good zombie action (Romero, of course, only uses the shuffling kind) and some unintentional humor (see the sheriff’s hysterical line, “Yeah, they’re dead. They’re….all messed up”) and you’ve got a film that has fascinated generations of viewers. Much like most of the movies on this list, you shouldn’t expect stellar acting or writing, but this one transcends its limitations. See it now, if you never have.

3.         Dead Snow (2009), directed by Tommy Wirkola.  Amaray Wrap.EPS

Two words: zombie Nazis. That should be all you need to know about this Norwegian film.

A group of friends takes a vacation to a remote cabin. The one who was planning to ski cross-country through the mountains, alone and at night, never arrives, but soon, a mysterious stranger appears, warning our core group of a local legend about cursed soldiers and missing Nazi treasure. You can imagine what happens next.

Much like Scream, Dead Snow is postmodern in its metatextual references. One of our main characters is a film buff, who immediately recognizes the threat for what it is and warns the others not to get bitten. To say that the plan doesn’t work out very well is an understatement.

Unlike a lot of zombie texts, this one often sets the action in the daylight. In fact, the snowy landscape lends a near-blinding sheen to the gore, so that you see nearly every spatter of blood and almost every flesh wound in detail. As plan after plan fails, as the most competent characters succumb, as you view one of the grossest and most hilarious gags involving a crotch in cinematic history, you’ll laugh and grimace in disgust, sometimes simultaneously. In tone, it’s closer to Cabin in the Woods than Night of the Living Dead; you can decide for yourself if that’s good. Just watch the movie. Like now.

2.         Dawn of the Dead (1978), directed by George A. Romero.  Dawn of the Dead 1978

This one is Romero’s best, and it’s possibly the most loved and respected film in the canon. Starring one of Romero’s trademark cast of stars you’ve never heard of, featuring B-level acting and lines that run the gamut from good to dripping with cheese, utilizing the most absurd and nonsensical use of a blood pressure machine ever, Dawn of the Dead has nevertheless transcended its genre roots.

Like the remake, it’s set in a shopping mall. Unlike the remake, the mall here is infested with zombies, who shuffle by the locked doors of the shops our heroes inhabit. The monsters here look not all that different from your typical suburban consumer, and these images likely resonate now more than ever, given how we all do the “cell phone zombie shuffle,” staring at our handheld screens as we walk into fountains and trip over potted plants. This critique of consumerism foreshadowed the “more is more,” “greed is good” decade to come.

Beyond all the scholarly hooey, though, stands a really good genre movie, one with all the usual trappings plus the addition of a bloodthirsty biker gang that may be more dangerous than the zombies. If Snyder’s film is an exercise in pure forward motion, this one is more contemplative, but as a movie that extends what a zombie movie can be and do, it’s more important.

Dawn of the Dead isn’t as flashy or ironic or bloody as some movies on this list, but you absolutely must see it before you reanimate. And always, always, always pick a good time to check your blood pressure.

1.         Shaun of the Dead (2004), directed by Edgar Wright.  Shaun of the Dead

I may well catch some flak for putting this movie on top of my list. I don’t care. Shaun of the Dead does so many things at once that it may well be the only movie here qualifying for high-art status.

Is the movie a parody of zombie flicks? Yes, but like the best parodies, it completely understands its source material. Wright and his co-writer, star Simon Pegg, referred to the movie as a “rom-zom-com”—a romantic zombie comedy. It’s all that and more. It’s uproarious, often at zombies’ expense, and yet it is at times a gory, genuinely frightening, tension-saturated zombie movie. It’s a romantic comedy; the only thing more important to Shaun (Pegg) than surviving the apocalypse is repairing his relationship with his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). It is poignant; witness the scenes near the end with Shaun’s mother, his stepdad Phillip (Bill Nighy (!!!)), or his best friend Ed (Nick Frost).

Shaun of the Dead is, in other words, several films in one, all of them excellent. It brought Pegg (most recently seen as Scotty in Star Trek: Into Darkness) and Frost a cult following. It led to further collaborations between the stars and Wright in the underrated Hot Fuzz. (Pegg and Frost would write and star in Greg Mottola’s Paul in 2011, while Wright would direct the energetic Scott Pilgrim vs. the World without his stars. Wright is now at work on Marvel’s Ant-Man movie, of all things.)

If you are among those who have never watched this movie, run—don’t walk—to your computer and Netflix it right now, or buy it and watch it tonight. I highly doubt you will regret it.

So there it is, folks, for better or worse: my top ten zombie films of all time. Feel free to post replies or email me with comments, complaints, or praise. And remember—they’re coming to get you, so there may never be a better time for a movie marathon. Stay up late and scare yourself silly. Live a little before your spouse gnaws your arm off.

 Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Email me at brett@officialbrettriley.com.

 

 

 

 

MAN OF STEEL, WORLD WAR Z, and Source Material: or, The Film Adaptation Did What, Now?

Since at least 1975, when Steven Spielberg’s Jaws became arguably the first summer blockbuster, the summer film season has evolved—some might say devolved—into a kind of paddock in which every snapping, chomping, exploding, shoot-em-upping, CGI-heavy popcorn flick prowls. If it involves killer robots (giant or otherwise), aliens, super-heroes, car chases for the sake of car chases, debauched partying, and/or monsters, you’re more likely to see it on summer movie screens. You won’t see many Prestige Films from May to August. What you will see are the fanboy flicks meant to generate the bulk of the year’s income; these movies are the engines that drive the studios and, sometimes, allow them to fund movies with stronger plots, better characterization and character development, clearer cinematography, better editing, effects that supplement the plot rather than substitute for it.

That is not to say that all summer films are bad—far from it. Many are fun. Many are well-constructed, well-conceived, well-acted. Some might be equally at home in the fall, when Oscar-bait pictures enjoy wide releases and strategic advertising campaigns that are meant to entice the Academy as much as Joe Consumer. But for the most part, summer is the stomping ground for the kind of movie that inspires theme-park rides, action figures, and ComicCon panels.

And, in today’s ever-more-cynical Hollywood, most of these lumbering, clunky, and yes, often exhilarating movies are built not just to make zillions of dollars but also to jumpstart a franchise.

Two recent summer releases follow this pattern. Both were adapted from beloved source material. Both are CGI-heavy action films, though one also utilizes elements of the suspense thriller. Both opt for kinetic thrill over character development and present some troubling moral quandaries for the viewer.

But make no mistake—World War Z is not Man of Steel.

I wanted to like Man of Steel. I really did.

For over twenty years, I was an avid comic collector. My collection easily numbered in the thousands. I was purchasing around sixty titles a month at one point. Eventually, in the mid-1990s, I quit, the reasons for which could fill another column. Suffice it to say that I grew sick of the lazy, marketing-based storytelling. Should the reader be interested, I’ll break it all down sometime.

For now, I will simply say this: even at the apex of my comics-collecting frenzy, I never really followed Superman closely. He never really interested me. In the old days, no villain had a chance against him unless he/she happened to find a piece of kryptonite lying around. Superman was “super” to a fault, with more powers than the combined might of your average super-team, plus near-invulnerability. Moreover, I came of age in the 1970s and 80s, a time when comics were growing darker and ever more adult in tone. “The Big Blue Boy Scout” and his utterly pure ethics were much less interesting than the shades-of-gray morality of, say, the X-Men or the everyman struggles of Peter Parker. On the DC side of things, Batman’s neuroses—perhaps even psychoses—provided fecund grounds for character-based storytelling and action-based plots with real stakes. You always knew that Batman wouldn’t die or get hurt too badly—his name was on the book, right?—but he was vulnerable in ways that Superman could never be.

When Richard Donner’s first Superman film was released, I watched it because it was a super-hero film. Christopher Reeve did an admirable job. Superman II was, to my young eyes, pretty awesome. Terence Stamp made for a willowy, aristocratic Zod, but the triple threat of the Phantom Zone escapees posed real problems for Superman. I dug it. Of course, Superman III was really more of a comedy, and the less said about Superman IV, the better. Much like with the comics version, the filmic Superman interested me enough to keep up with what was happening, but not much more.

I never watched Lois and Clark on TV. I still have not seen Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. Do you get what I’m saying? I respected Superman’s place in pop culture history, but I was never really invested in him, either.

Still, for some reason I can’t quite explain, I got really excited when I saw the trailers for Man of Steel. I found myself rooting for the Big Blue Boy Scout. I wanted the film to be good, a box office success and a critical smash. I bought my tickets and sat among the other drooling fanboys and girls, ready to be dazzled.

As I’ve said elsewhere, Man of Steel is really the first of the various Superman films to demonstrate understanding of Superman’s sheer scale. The leveling of Smallville and large sections of Metropolis provide strong, clear images of what would happen if godlike beings threw down, and, viewing the scope of the wreckage, the ticket-holder could be forgiven for his/her relief that such beings don’t exist in our world. Even if we forget about the potential loss of life, can you imagine the sheer economic devastation that would occur in the wake of just one super-battle? Insurance premiums alone would bankrupt your average citizen.

The problems with the film as a film have already been covered by other critics—the lack of chemistry between the leads, the over-dependence on CGI, the relentless battles that bleed into one another as if good scriptwriting were only a matter of moving from one near-incomprehensible set piece to another (I honestly wonder if the script might have been only 30 pages long), and so forth. To these concerns, I have added my own distaste for the fetishistic destruction of New York-substitute Metropolis, especially the scenes in which the Daily Planet staff wanders about a landscape that looks suspiciously like Ground Zero on 9/11. In fact, why did we even meet Perry White et al. in this film? They never really did anything substantive.

I also don’t like the typical Snyder-film acting style of SHOUTING EVERY LINE AT THE TOP OF ONE’S LUNGS, ESPECIALLY TO SUPERMAN, WHO HAS FRICKIN’ SUPER-HEARING. Michael Shannon’s a fine actor, but he chews too much scenery here.

A sidebar: at one point, Zod says to Superman, “I was bred for this! I was trained all my life to be a warrior! Where did you train, A FARM?” Um, dude, you were the one who got your ass kicked by a scientist in hand-to-hand combat.

Were it not for strong performances by Henry Cavill and Russell Crowe, the oft-dazzling visuals (Snyder’s greatest strength thus far), and the early scenes that ground Clark’s humanity in a typical “Who am I, really?” search, I would have hated the film. Still, I thought it was okay at best, C- material.

Back to the subject of this column, my main problems with the film lie with its ending and how that ending demonstrates the filmmakers’ fundamental misunderstanding of Superman’s character, as well as their own failure to construct a clear sense of ethics for Clark/Superman.

SPOILER ALERT: if you don’t know how the film ends, stop reading and come back after you’ve seen the movie. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

If you’re still with me, then I can tell you that I am firmly in the camp that believes Superman should never kill. Certainly the actions of the cinematic Superman have no bearing on the source material. But as I said to a friend recently, if you’re coming to an adaptation of a beloved character, you expect some level of faithfulness to what made you a fan of that character in the first place. Superman is not Wolverine, or the Punisher, or Deathstroke, or Deadshot. He always finds a way not to kill. Having Superman kill Zod without even trying anything else (why not zoom up in the air with him? Put your super hand over his eyes? Pull him backward? Bop him on top of the head really hard?) is like a Harry Potter adaptation in which Harry is a heroin-addicted sexual pervert. It is, at best, a fundamental misunderstanding of your source material, one that cannot be whitewashed with creative license. At worse, it’s a betrayal of your audience. You can surprise them without insulting them.

Of course, all that assumes that cinematic Superman believes in the same ethical code as comic-book Superman, and the audience is likely to assume he does because the film does not construct a clear set of moral codes for Clark in his early years. I find this flaw within the film even more troubling than the alteration of the source texts.

As portrayed in the film, Jonathan and Martha Kent seem to exemplify the worst parenting tendencies of the contemporary age, specifically the propensity to teach our children that they are special to the point of exceptionalism. I’m all for building our kids’ confidence and showing them that, as individuals, they are valuable and strong and wonderful. But as an educator, I have seen how many parents take this too far. Children of these parents grow up believing that they are perfect, that anything they do should be unconditionally praised, that success in every endeavor is both a given and their right as human beings, that they are truly and unequivocally the center of the universe.

Jonathan and Martha Kent teach Clark that his safety, his life, is more important than anyone else’s. When Clark saves a busload of children but exposes his powers in doing so, Jonathan implies that letting all those kids die would have been a preferable solution. When Jonathan is about to die in the big tornado and Clark wants to save him, Jonathan waves him off. He is literally willing to die for his son, and I’m wondering why none of the Superman-as-Christ commentaries seem to be parsing this particular scene. So Clark grows up having been told that his own safety is paramount, even if others have to suffer and die.

To his credit, Clark rejects that idea, risking exposure several times in order to help others. Given his upbringing, we might wonder where these morals come from; surely there is an academic nature-vs-nurture article here. In any case, though, he seems to be rebelling against the teachings of his parents and following his own conscience.

Therefore, when he is forced to kill Zod (or isn’t imaginative enough to figure out another way) and subsequently screams in teary-eyed—what? Anger? Frustration? Guilt?—we hope that this will be the start of a contemporary take on Superman’s morality. What effects will this action have on him? How will he ever get over it? Is he becoming more like his Earth father, in spite of his intentions? How much sleep will he lose? How long will he have to wander the Earth doing penance? How will such penance affect his burgeoning relationship with Lois and, more importantly, his ability to help the world become a better place?

Apparently, his reaction to breaking his own moral code—of not just letting someone die for the first time but actually taking that life himself—is to say, “Oh, well.” In the subsequent scenes, Superman trades one-liners with a general. He has a frank talk with his mother about his future, and his solution to his deep and scarring ethical breach is to smile and basically say, “I think I’ll get a job.” How has his relationship with humanity in general, and with Lois specifically, changed? Apparently not at all. He is the smiling, slightly horny, newest member of the Daily Planet staff.  Wow. That’s some deep stuff right there.

In Man of Steel, this ultimate breach of Superman’s canonical ethos and the rupturing of the film’s own ethical continuity (or, rather, the movie’s last revision of its own shaky construction of Clark’s ethics) have no visible consequences whatsoever.  In this world, Superman kills, and he’s momentarily sorry, and that’s about it. On to the next one. One wonders how Lex Luthor will die in the inevitable sequel and whether Superman will even bat an eyelash.

In this origin story, Clark never comes close to reconciling the varied sets of ethics with which he is presented, so the viewer is left wondering just what kind of Man of Steel we have been given. This kind of egregious and, thus far, purposeless dismissal of the source and the audience’s history with the character is unforgivable. And it undermines Man of Steel as a stand-alone story.

So why is World War Z, a film that radically departs from its source text, any better?

For one reason, World War Z does not carry so much historical weight. Superman’s first appearance, in Action Comics #1, occurred in 1938. Along with Action Comics, Superman appeared in his own eponymous book, various incarnations of Justice League of America, spin-offs, team-ups, and special issues, not to mention the various television shows, cartoons, and films that featured the character. Whole generations grew up with Superman, who, my own tastes notwithstanding, is still the most iconic super-hero of them all.

World War Z appeared, if I am not mistaken, in 2006. Though it enjoys a devoted following, particularly among zombie culture aficionados (among which I count myself), it has not enjoyed the kind of generational, wide-ranging cultural saturation that Superman has. If nothing else, its very recent appearance on the cultural stage assures us that a comparative iconography with Superman is, as of this moment, impossible.

Because World War Z does not and, at this point in time, cannot mean as much to as many people as Superman, the filmic version’s alterations of the source text seem less problematic.

World War Z the novel also eschews typical narrative conventions like point of view. As an “oral history of the zombie war,” its goal is to present as broad a view as possible of how a zombie apocalypse might evolve, as well as its effects on the global community. Instead of reading about the zombocalypse from the perspective of one central intelligence or one set of core characters, we jump from country to country, character to character. In doing so, we see how the zombie apocalypse affects various strata of humanity: men, women, and animals; the rich and the poor; first-world countries and undeveloped nations; religious and secular communities.

We don’t get much depth in terms of character development or setting, but the tradeoff is that we finally see the apocalypse for the world-wide cataclysm it should, by definition, be. It’s a different kind of story-telling that some love and some aren’t so crazy about; I find myself somewhere in the middle, liking the book but wishing that it were longer or the scope smaller so that the elements that make stories worth telling could have more time to develop. Still, the book does what it does well.

In terms of the film adaptation, it could not possibly tell the story in the same way. The book’s structure tries some audience members’ patience but still succeeds because it can fill a few hundred pages with vignettes. In the movies, though, telling the story that way would completely deconstruct any narrative through-line. You would have to spend only a minute or two at most with each vignette, leading to an experience that would be fragmented to a fault, or you would have to focus on just a handful, meaning that you’re leaving out most of the text anyway and would have little time to do more than establish the basic narrative situation of each before you cut to the next one.

Now…films like Cloud Atlas remind us that it is possible to utilize a fragmented narrative with shorter narrative arcs set in varied locales and time periods. In that film, the arcs focused on different characters and their interconnected plotlines; it used careful scripting and masterful editing to create a narrative that makes sense. However, Cloud Atlas concentrated on five or six locales and character sets; World War Z the novel covered many more. Therefore, the same problems mentioned above would still arise. What do you keep, and what do you leave out? Any omission would limit your devotion to the source text. Filmmakers are limited by budgets, running times, and actors’ schedules, among other things, none of which a novelist has to consider. So Marc Forster and his producers would, in adapting World War Z, have to leave out most of the novel or cover everything at far too fast a pace and in far too jumbled a way. You could, perhaps, faithfully adapt World War Z into an ongoing television series, but there seems to be no way to do so in a two-hour film.

Knowing that material would have to be left out anyway, the filmmakers decided—rightly, I believe—to focus the narrative on Gerry Lane and his family. Gerry still nation-hops, much like the correspondent does in the novel, only now we are seeing the apocalypse as it happens, rather than hearing about it second-hand. Forster and company might have chosen to shoot the film documentary-style and hewed closer to the book, but this approach allows for more action and less talking about the action—more showing and less telling. And while showing rather than telling is always good narrative advice, it is crucial in the visual medium of film.

There is also no discernible breach in the source text’s established ethos. In zombie texts, the undead are monsters, no longer human. There is no moral compunction to consider; you cannot feel guilty for protecting yourself against something that is already dead. So when Gerry kills zombies, he echoes what the various characters of the novel do.

We see the Lane family act in the midst of the zombie outbreaks: they steal a vehicle; they run away from the zombies, leaving other people to die; they protect themselves at the expense of others. When possible, as seen with the family in the apartment building, they help their fellow survivors. When no hope for help exists, they save themselves.

You can argue the moral relativity of their actions from now until the zombies bash in your own door; such arguments have and will probably continue to provide fodder for academic and cultural studies of zombie texts. Here, though, the point is that the Lanes act no differently than your average survivor in the novel. Sometimes they are selfless, risking their lives for others. Sometimes they flee in terror, probably glad that they can outrun their slower brethren. They fight on the side of humanity but exhibit human fears and the realistic tendency to break social and ethical codes when the society built upon those codes breaks down. They are no better or worse than the characters in Brooks’ novel. Therefore, while some readers might take issue with the altered structure and the focus on Lane, it is likely that fewer would find themselves deeply offended by Lane’s actions or how they fit within the framework of the narrative’s world.

In terms of how it functions as a film, World War Z is above average, but not perfect. It is very well-acted, especially for a genre film. Brad Pitt is particularly good; I forgot that I was watching Brad frickin’ Pitt in a zombie movie and found myself invested in the character’s survival (which, really, isn’t much a concern until the film’s final scenes; he’s the main character, after all). The action scenes were mostly well-done. The final scenes in the WHO labs positively drip with suspense; even if you can see what’s coming, as I did, you still want to know how it happens and who will survive. Like the character played by Christopher Meloni in Man of Steel, World War Z’s female Israeli soldier (whose name, like Meloni’s character’s, I cannot recall) was compelling. She endures physical and emotional trauma and still comes off like a badass.

If we are left wondering who Superman/Clark Kent really is, we know Gerry Lane well enough. He is a former U.N. operative with strong family ties. He is highly competent. He values his family more than other people but never abandons anyone when the possibility for saving them still exists.

Does World War Z leave questions unanswered? Yes, and it admits to doing so. We don’t know how the plague started or where it originated. We don’t know how well the solution will work. We don’t know exactly how it will be implemented. Yes, it’s that cynical Hollywood machine in action again, setting up a potential franchise at the expense of the stand-alone story. Yet this story does stand alone. The first stage is over. Some fans may feel cheated that the whole story was not covered, but at least they should not feel as cheated as Man of Steel viewers might. Marc Forster and company didn’t create a race of zombies that kill humans but raise puppies and daffodils or something equally insulting to the source mythology.

Even if you ignore the novel, World War Z isn’t flawless. I would like to see more development of Gerry’s backstory. The subplot with his daughter’s asthma fizzles out. Thomas the orphan boy seems to have little place in the film. Mireille Enos has very little to do other than look concerned. And, as my wife rightly pointed out, two of the major screw-ups in the film happen because a woman does exactly what she should not do at exactly the wrong time—not exactly gender-progressive.

While all these issues are troubling, though, they aren’t film-killers. World War Z is better acted, more coherent, and much less insulting than Man of Steel. I would grade this one in the B+/B range, significantly higher than Man of Steel’s C-. If these two films do indeed jumpstart franchises, which is clearly Hollywood’s hope—and the jury is still out, as both opened very strongly, but Man of Steel suffered a 71% dropoff in its second weekend—I hope that the second Z film (World War Z II? World War II-Z?) is even better than the first. And I hope that the Man of Steel team finds a way to redeem Superman. He deserves it, and so do we.

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