Jewish Horror Films: World War Z (2013)

Since I just wrote about "JeruZalem," which details a sort-of zombie takeover of Jerusalem, it seemed appropriate to write about "World War Z," which details a sort-of zombie takeover of Jerusalem. Despite the similar themes, the films are quite different, with the former acting as a POV of a Biblical apocalypse and the latter a sprawling epic that behaves like a epidemiological procedural concerned with a fast-spreading plague.

In fact, most of "World War Z" is not set in Israel. It's based on the popular novel by Max Brooks, a former Saturday Night Live writer and voice actor who also happens to be the son of Mel Brooks. His book borrowed from oral histories of World War II, and so takes the form of a series of oral interviews, spanning the entire globe. It's a clever book, slyly satirizing government ineptitude and isolationism, and none of that made it into the film. Produced by Brad Pitt and directed by Marc Forster, the film instead is a series of connected set pieces, following a UN investigator played by Pitt as he hops the globe, trying to locate the source of the zombie infection.

This film's zombies are idiosyncratic. While the original cinematic zombies, associated with the films of George Romero, were slow-moving, these have taken the running zombies of the remake of Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" and supercharged them. The zombies run at you, bit you, and, 12 seconds later, you are likewise a zombie, and likewise running. This leads to crowds of zombies that are more like a flood or a swarm of bees than any undead creature shown on screen before, and their single-mindedness is terrifying: They will climb atop each other like ants, or leap off buildings, or smash through glass, to get at their victims, always teeth first.

Each scene with these monsters is self-contained and pretty similar. Pitt will show up, learn something new, and get out just as zombies overrun the place. But the film is well-made -- each scene feels distinctive, and some iconic, such as a moment when a zombie infections occurs on an airplane, mid-flight. Due to problems with the filming and the fact that the movie takes great liberties with the source material, aliening fans of the book, "World War Z" was predicted to be a bust. Instead, it earned a half-billion dollars, and I don't wonder why. It's not a great film, and loses much of what was great about the novel, but it is a bracing, efficient piece of filmmaking, and effectively folds the epic scope of Brook's novel into the more contained story it tells.

I won't concern myself with most of the film's set pieces but instead limit myself to the Israel sequence. Pitt's character flies to Jerusalem, mostly out of curiosity, as the city is one of the few that has not been overrun. It turns out that the Israelis had the foresight to build massive walls around the city before the zombie infection arrived. Pitt speaks with a Mossad agent, who explains that Israel has a policy, informed by the Holocaust and later violence toward Jews, never to disregard anything as unthinkable.

The Israelis have not only built a defensive wall, but are bringing in Palestinians, explaining that every human they save is one less zombie they might fight. Their plans don't really work -- the zombies manage to climbs the walls, piling up on each other like ants, and there is a long sequence in which Pitt and an Israel soldier (Daniella Kertesz) race through the narrow Jerusalem streets.

There was a bit of a dust-up over this scene, as there often is when Israel is involved, with critics claiming the scene is pro-Israel propaganda. I make it a policy to avoid Israeli politics, so I will not comment, but I will note that in the novel, the sequence is far more complicated, with haredi Jews revolting in a miniature civil war due to Israel retracting its borders to pre-1967 size, the authorities see as being tactically more defensible, and the zombie threat eventually causes a coalition between Israelis and Palestinians. By the end of the novel, Masada-styled walled enclaves are one of the ways people have started surviving the plague of zombies.

All this is so Jewish I can barely stand it, and very little of it made it into the film. And perhaps that is fine, as the idea of warring nations unified by a supernatural threat dates back at least to a 1963 episode of The Outer Limits called "The Architects of Fear," and was also the climax of "Watchmen," and so is well-trod ground. On the other hand, everything in "World War Z" is likewise well-trod, if sped up, and at least a haredi civil war would have the benefit of novelty.

I will say this: Jerusalem is a great location for a zombie film. Those narrow streets between stone walls and stone buildings are perfect for fleeing the dead. There's even a moment in "JeruZalem" when the characters race down the Via Dolorosa, which is supposed to be the path that Jesus took on his way to his crucifixion, and it goes unmentioned, which seems like a waste.

While we're at if, if horror movies are going to make use of actual Israeli locations, let's see one based on Brooks' suggestion at the end of "World War Z." Let's retell the story of Masada, on location at the desert fortress, with zombies taking the place of Romans. I mean, it's perfect. Set it during the swearing-in ceremony of the Israeli Defense Force, which used to be done at Masada, and, for the sake of our film, will be again, and ends with the declaration that "Masada shall not fall again."

So we have hundreds of newly trained IDF soldiers, man and woman alike, all in their late teens, and trained in the use of weapons. Trap them in Masada, surround them with zombies, and see what happens.

Hollywood, and Max Brooks: call me.