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World War Z: Helpful Lessons Courtesy of Brad Pitt Versus the Zombies

When it comes to contemporary zombie-mania? Sorry, not a fan. Standard-issue undead TV or film is normally heavy on splashy, look-at-me gore that I think is aesthetically tacky and psychologically and spiritually unhealthful for people — thus, culturally,detrimental for society. The world around us is coarse enough already. Needlessly slopping this ghoulish ingredient into the mix? Why would we want that? Accordingly, I generally don’t patronize zombie-themed product with my attention or my money; and I don’t encourage others to do so. 

So, it was with some hesitation one recent afternoon, I settled myself into a local multiplex to take in this summer’s premiere zombie flick, World War Z. My buddy and Clash Daily purveyor, Doug Giles, had pointedly commended the Brad-Pitt-starring vehicle. He and a number of reviewers, curiously, had also emphasized WWZ didn’t revel in the gruesome, ambulatory-corpses-munching-on-shrieking-humans tropes which have become de rigueur for walking dead fare since George Romero’s iconic (and overrated) Night of the Living Dead (1971).

Based on Max Brooks’ best-selling novel, World War Z  wrapped-up its cinematic circuit with box-office of roughly half-a-billion dollars worldwide – numbers which will only fatten with rentals/DVD sales (ads for its Blue Ray release are lately all over the telly.)

I admit I was entertained by Z’s sufficiently riveting, globe-trotting story. Somewhat unexpectedly, I was further struck by a number of “teachable moments” nestled into what is, bottom-line, an end-of-the-world thriller. 

First: in a life-and-death pinch, threatened individuals are unapologetically glad to possess a firearm.

Early in the plot-line, Brad Pitt’s Gerry Lane inadvertently comes upon an abandoned rifle and ammunition. His character, vaguely sketched as as a former United Nation’s, world-trekking  investigator — perhaps kind of a “Peace Corps” type? — clearly is not supposed to project the fire-eating, weapons enthusiast vibe. Yet – when his family is menaced by nightmarish danger, and he gains access to a gun? He doesn’t hesitate to procure — and use — lethal firearm force. There’s no anguished, moral cogitations, no tight-lipped close-ups of his questioning his decision. Nope — Wife and daughters terrified and facing death? Zombie-stopping hardware available? Do the common sense math: Bang, bang.

It’s silly and obnoxious, alas, that this should seem at all noteworthy, should make any impression whatsoever on a moviegoer, especially considering all  the murderous mayhem erupting everywhere around Gerry Lane in that sequence. Self-evidently, if a person’s loved ones are threatened, he’ll avail himself of all means available to protect them. What’s the big deal with that? 

Well, in our era’s firearms-phobic frenzy, turns out its a pretty big deal, indeed. As George Orwell indicated many years ago, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle … We have now sunk to a depth at which re-statement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” 

WWZ discharges that duty. Graphically. 

As a related aside, this summer I also caught a handful of episodes from BBC America’s much-talked-about crime series Luther.  This more down-to-earth drama offered a starkly different approach to firearms which, nonetheless, caused me to come away with the same conviction as did the zombie-actioner: things go better for the good guys when they are armed against the bad guys. 

If Luther‘s is an accurate representation, apparently it’s not just an urban legend I’ve heard my whole life that British “coppers” don’t carry firearms. The program regularly features scenarios — nearly hilarious, if their implications weren’t so appalling — of law-enforcement professionals venturing empty-handed into stand-offs with armed culprits. In one instance, Luther‘s eponymous protagonist (played by a mesmerizing Idris Elba) fishes a pipe out of a dumpster to protect himself; in another, he wields a mop against a butcher-brandishing maniac.

Honestly, Luther isn’t science-fiction; or comedy.

Reasonable people acknowledge: responsible folk ought to be permitted the instrumentalities of physical protection. Brad Pitt vs. the undead illustrates this. As, unintentionally, does DCI Luther.

Second, the comparatively restrained tastefulness of WWZ‘s presentation, particularly in light of its potentially blood-saturated subject matter, is positively startling. Yes, Z is intense, parts of it disturbing, but it’s no splatter-palooza. To his credit, director Marc Forster didn’t go that unimaginative route .There’s no shortage of violent action, mind you — but eyeballs aren’t pulled out of heads, innards aren’t dredged from shrieking victims, close-ups of snarling freaks’ flesh-caked teeth gnawing on writhing prey are conspicuously lacking. The story is framed in a manner that is explosively impactful, but not grisly. Sure, it tightens the sphincter, but it doesn’t turn the stomach. 

If memory serves, profanity is also de minimis in this flick. Lots of terrified screaming,  frantic dialogue and the occasional off-color word? Check. But not the torrent of obscenities that swamp too many PG-13 offerings. And sex, nudity? Zilch.(Although, I’ll concede, it’d be tough to make time for illicit whoopee when one is being stalked by rabid packs of cadaverous carnivores.)

Can a silver-screen thriller be exciting and ticket-worthy without sinking to the lurid lowest-common-denominator? Without wallowing in the stylistic cesspool? WWZ manifestly showcases the answer: an authoritative “Absolutely”. It takes effort on the parts of the creative powers-that-be — but, demonstrably, it can be done.

Finally, WWZ reminds us: on some level “civilization” requires a workable social order. Government, civic institutions, law enforcement, the military – when they fall apart, for all Gerry Lane’s doughty survivalist exploits, a Hobbesian arrangement locks-in. And it’s not pretty – just as things will become ugly if government (local, state, federal) ever collapses altogether, no longer accomplishing the few, legitimate functions assigned it.

America’s Founders never envisioned lawlessness or anarchy. Constitutionally-revered independence doesn’t entail the cartoonishly, every-man-for-himself isolation about which some libertarians romanticize. Madison memorably reflected, “If men were angles, no government would be necessary.” But angels men ain’t.

What’s essential, then? Not “statism”, but a liberty-preserving “state” of restrained and accountable disposition. And a civil society of free men voluntarily supporting one another. A mob of lone wolves, over the long haul, won’t – can’t – hold up against real world “zombies” – whatever form they might take.

Image: Poster for World War Z; source: Paramount Pictures;; fair use

Steve Pauwels

Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and host of Striker Radio with Steve Pauwels on the Red State Talk Radio Network. He's also husband to the lovely Maureen and proud father of three fine sons: Mike, Sam and Jake.