After years of chatter, delays, and just plain trouble, the big screen version of Max Brooks’ game-changing zombie oral history, in the guise of director Marc Forster’s extremely changed and chopped up World War Z, finally hits theaters this Friday. While the production’s apparently awful journey to a theater near you (complete with enough script changes to make anyone consider letting a zombie eat their brains, just so you no longer have to attempt to keep track of who wrote what and when and maybe even how and one of Hollywood’s biggest reshoots ever) is finally over, it still remains to be seen if the world is ready for a big blockbuster (read: wildly expensive) zombie movie starring Brad Pitt.
While the final product is certainly entertaining (and generally in a positive way), Forster’s film is still just a zombie movie, which is why the coolest thing about the film (really) is the fact that it busts out “the z-word” within its first hour, scoffs at it a bit, and then just runs with it.
In World War Z, the world is screwed, Pitt plays a guy trying to stop an outbreak that’s based on a guy who reported on said outbreak ten years later (sorry, source material), but at least zombies are “zombies.” It’s about time.
Zombie films have long demonstrated a sort of genre blindness – most of them feel as if they exist in worlds that don’t have any kind of recognizable zombie influence in media, whole parallel universes that don’t know about George Romero or Shaun of the Dead or the Resident Evil video game franchise and, moreover, have seemingly never thought about the implications of raising the dead from even a classic work like Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” Perhaps they have some other genre of horror to occupy the entertainment void left by their nonexistent zombies, or maybe they just have more rom-coms (not zom-rom-coms, obviously) in their theaters. But, for whatever reason, actually saying “these are zombies” in a zombie film with any kind of authority is frowned upon. At least until recently.
We all know what zombies are – at least in popular culture – they are the risen dead whose bites turn perfectly good humans into flesh-hungry ghouls. Sure, their method of feasting, their gait, their ticks, and their weaknesses may vary from property to property, but we know a zombie when we see one.
Even in Shaun of the Dead, the mention of “the z-word” prompts Simon Pegg’s Shaun to demand that Nick Frost’s Ed not use it because it’s “ridiculous.” Sure, it’s ridiculous, but it’s also happening. Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead also avoids calling them “zombies,” even if most cinephiles cite the film as the modern originator of what we recognize as a zombie film. Other zombie films that fear “the z-word” as much as the actual z-word? Survival of the Dead, Return of the Living Dead, Death Becomes Her, I Am Legend (though its source material portrays them as more vampire types), the Resident Evil films, 28 Days Later, The Crazies, [REC], and the Evil Dead series. “Zombie” just doesn’t fly, while “deadites,” “deadheads,” “assholes” (a personal favorite), “ghouls,” and “the infected” (or, “the Infected”) are used as perpetual stand-ins given the particular films and franchises they exist in.
(Now is the perfect time to mention the vast quantity of typically lower-budget zombie films that actually use the word “zombie” in their title, but let’s get real here – Bath Salt Zombies, Zombie A-Hole, and Attack of the Vegan Zombies are not exactly mainstream titles.)
But the tide is turning! In 2009’s Zombieland, one of the first things that Jesse Eisenberg’s Columbus tells us is that the United States is now the “United States of Zombieland.” Sure, the title of the film is actually Zombieland, but isn’t it nice to get that out of the way with maximum efficiency? In 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods, zombies get plenty of love (and naming recognition), as the film’s bad guy white board features not only “Zombies” as a viable option, but also “Zombie Redneck Torture Family” (the Buckners!). Hell, Drew Goddard even throws in “Deadites” as a white board possibility, just for fun. This year’s other blockbuster zombie film, Warm Bodies, also doesn’t shy away from the z-word, as Nicholas Hoult’s R self-identifies as a zombie and is referred to as the z-word by non-zombies.
So why use the z-word in zombie movies? Because we all know what they are and what they can do.
While World War Z doesn’t trot out the term until almost an hour into the film, and its use is initially mocked and used as reasoning for why the zombie invasion wasn’t viewed as a zombie invasion until it was far too late (clearly, the people in charge are from the Shaun of the Dead school of thought), it’s unquestionably cool to hear anyone starring in a zombie movie (especially Brad Pitt) call zombies by their accepted, genre-specific name in a way that says, “Yes, these are zombies. Also, this is a zombie movie. Remove your genre blindness blinders and enter our world.” It simply grounds things, and that’s the best way to make a horror film really zing.
They are zombies, this is a zombie movie, now let’s just worry about where they fall on the brain-eating continuum.
Want to read more about genre blindness? Of course you do. Head on over to TV Tropes.