Thoughts for the Times on World War Z and Death

To tolerate life remains, after all, the first duty of all living things. Illusion has no value if it makes this harder for us. We recall the old saying: Si vis pacem, para bellum. If you want to preserve peace, prepare for war. It would be in keeping with the times to alter it: Si vis vitam, para moterm. If you want to endure life, prepare yourself for death.

-Freud, Thought for the Times on War and Death

In last week’s The New Yorker review, Anthony Lane made the strikingly earnest suggestion that we turn to Freud in order to explain our cultural fascination with a zombie apocalypse. Strikingly because, as Lane points out, Freud has been out of fashion for a long time (in our post-modern era, we are of course more likely to get bored of a philosophy long before we tackle its shortcomings). But, setting aside all that is wrongheaded and silly in Freud, the man asked a good point: why do we sometimes seem to desire what we spend most of the time denying and disavowing?

Why do we desire what’s most horrifying?

I’m not talking about cultural psychology (which is fun, but founded on a slippery and ill-defined move from the individual to the masses). Instead, I mean, ‘why does any given person like to see Roland Emmerich-style destruction(s) of the world, over and over?’ In Marc Forster’s World War Z, we’re repeatedly encouraged—in symphonic and other ways—to appreciate in detached awe the spectacle of the apocalypse. In some sense, the movie approaches a grotesque parody of the disaster movie; waves of humans smash into humans, maximizing the loss of human life by using humanity the way other directors have used tidal waves and asteroids. We care (barely) about Brad Pitt’s Gerry, and—even there—the movie does very little to invest us. Our opposite numbers, on screen, seem equally detached: a young child, saved by Pitt in the film, never seems to mourn the brutal slaughter of his parents. It’s possible everyone is in shock. Or it’s possible that, if you came to the movies in July, looking for a character-driven, psychological drama, you’re a very foolish person. (If you’re a fan boy, and wanted to see a literal translation of Max Brooks’ pastiche style, you’re doubly foolish). You’re there to see shit get smashed up a bit, and then a bit more, and then almost out of existence. But why?

This question is particularly resonant with zombie films, in large part because George A. Romero—amongst his other achievements, large and small—taught the world, long before film theory trickled down onto the streets, to watch movies allegorically. What’s ‘undead’ in Night of the Living Dead, of course, is racism: the film’s climactic images of white characters, stumbling inexorably after the black protagonist. Romero’s joke is that the ‘undead’—the primal life force that survives bodily death—isn’t the dark lust of the Id, but the cultural repression of American history. It’s racism, fear of miscegenation, and hatred. But then Romero twisted the metaphor of the joke, and—in Dawn of the Living Dead—the undead is the primal consumer in the heart of America. Even after dying, bodies are still dragging themselves to the mall.

Romero ultimately united the racial and Marxist metaphors; Land of the Dead sets the corporate-feudal Dennis Hopper against Eugene Clark’s working-class black zombie, who eventually leads a proletariat-zombie revolution. But—and this is what really matters—by then America, and the world, already knew how to use the zombie format. Romero started with religious allegory and moved quickly to race and class, but anyone was free to use zombies: as immigrants, as repressed social anger, as forbidden sexuality or repressed humanity. Now, when you go to see a zombie movie, you’re preemptively aware that you’re watching a socio-political allegory. So why you want to watch the world destroyed becomes a self-reflexively important thing.

In World War Z, the less-than-subtle allegory is two-fold. The first is the film’s blatantly geo-political rallying cry that endemic third world poverty provides an endless breeding ground for pathogens (the film suggests North Korea, Africa, India, and alludes carefully to China). Globalization, which caused and then accelerated this disparity, also provides the means of epidemic transmission; the film explicitly points out modern air-travel means that the first world cannot hide from the third (globalization shrinks the globe; everyone is eating where they’re shitting). That World War Z steals this outright from Contagion is interesting: Soderberg’s film is true horror, you try yourself against it, and it stays with you for weeks; Forster’s film is weightless fluff, you’re forgetting it as you’re watching it (if you don’t, the plot holes will gnaw at you). There never seems like any real danger, even as the world is destroyed. Along the way, everyone is spectacularly brave and resourceful and organized and committed: it’s a big hand-job to the idea of world-government.

But what makes the film interesting is the second allegory. Cut into the film’s opening—between repurposed clips of talking-heads debating climate change, pandemics, Republican denialism, etc.—are scenes of ants (foreshadowing the behavior of the film’s zombies), but also carrion birds, and a snarling (and possibly rabid) wild dog, pacing manically around a carcass. Early in the film, a Harvard virologist waxes capital-A-Allegorical to Pitt: “Mother Nature’s a serial killer… no one’s better, more creative… she’s a bitch.” The scientist can’t wait to find out the new disease’s weakness, to beat ‘the bitch,’ and is shaping up to be a living embodiment of the sexism of Enlightenment scientific language (short version: discovery = rape) until the poor fucker slips on a wet ramp and shoots himself in the face. And then the film, by and large, forgets this darker, Herzogian impulse. But never completely. While the film’s ending was originally conceived (and partially shot) as an epic, Braveheart-style ‘Battle of Moscow,’ the final version features Pitt discovering a kind of ‘camouflage’ to allow people to avoid the zombies. It is not a cure, just “a way to hide.”

This, amidst the preposterous plot-holes and comical heroics, this gets us somewhere. This is the fearful desire, the terrible idea, which we go to see made just a little bit real in the Orpheum darkness. It’s not that nature is a ‘bitch,’ it’s that nature just is. If there is a logic or reason, it isn’t a human one. It’s not a murderer, it’s simply indifferent. When you’re dealing with nature, there might be a way out, or a cure, and then again there might not be. But, sitting in the dark, that’s not what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, ‘hide.’ But you can’t. It’s like trying to hide from the universe, or—as zombie films are fond of reinforcing—trying to hide from yourself. One solution is to die. Thus, the death-wish. A consummated fear is never as bad as the fear itself, and there are noble deaths, deaths of a person’s own volition, rather than the protracted deaths of starvation and dehydration, the listless deaths of waiting. A disaster films gives us this: an imaginary, and thus survivable, end to hiding and waiting. The other solution is to find something—anything—to fight.

And that, in part, is the answer. Zombies—when rendered, as is fashionable of late, as plausible biological phenomenon—may startle here and there, but the present threat is always lesser than the ambient menace. A zombie you can grapple with, fight against, hide from. While you’re doing that (or, rather, while you’re watching the hero do that), you aren’t contemplating the idea that mankind, as part of nature, will eventually be killed off, outperformed by other predators, or simply fail in adapting to new environments (whether or not they’re those of our own making). What’s more, World War Z—unlike AMC’s spectacular The Walking Dead—refuses to approach the idea that zombies, though they are a monstrosity of nature, illuminate the monstrous nature of humanity. It denies that mankind—instead of dying out, in order not to die out—may evolve into something horrifying to its progenitors. The film keeps man and nature separated, heroic and resilient on the one side, wrathful and mutating on the other. Turn on the news, or just look around, and you can see why that might be an appealing fantasy.

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