Do you recall this exchange from Shaun of the Dead?
Ed: Are there any zombies out there?
Shaun: Don’t say that!
Shaun: That. The Z word. Don’t say it.
Ed: Why not?
Shaun: Because it’s ridiculous!
Ed: Alright… Are there any out there, though?
The joke for fans of the zombie genre is that there has always seemed to be this unwritten rule that no one ever can refer to the hungry walking dead by the term we the audience are most familiar with. It even inspired a TV Tropes entry on how fiction writers sometimes tie themselves in knots to avoid calling a vampire a vampire, or a zombie a zombie.
Which, y’know, whatever… George Romero himself thought of his creatures as “ghouls”. Plus if your characters immediately scream “Zombie!” when a groaning, walking corpse is grasping for them, you may be forfeiting a certain amount of genre blindness that a lot of zombie fiction needs in order for the narrative to function properly. This comic’s characters are perfectly okay with calling them what they are, but then they’re practical folks like that, and it’s not the usual zombie story. It doesn’t hinge around the chaos and uncertainty of the zombie apocalypse as it happens.
But it’s not unknown for a more mainstream zombie story to use the Z word. Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War is a perfect example of that exception to the rule…
…which is why it’s all the more bizarre that the film adaptation seems to be doing everything in its power to hide away that it involves zombies, like it’s ashamed of its own subject matter. Shortening the title to just World War Z is understandable. Trailers which make no mention of the undead (or even “infected”) in any form, and show split-second, confusing images of what could be just really excited people running about and piling up on each other begin to feel weird. In fact the beginning of the latest trailer I saw, with Brad Pitt and his family stopped in traffic in some big city (and then EXPLOSION!), could have easily been interchangeable with a disaster film like Independence Day or Armageddon.
Speaking of which, check out the poster.
Very dramatic, but no real clue as to why the city happens to be on fire in several places. Independence Day didn’t hide the alien spaceships. The Day After Tomorrow gleefully showed off the Statue of Liberty being splashed with giant waves. Why is this film afraid of its disaster? Why is it afraid of its own zombies? Anyone who already knows the World War Z property knows it’s about zombies, this is entirely about concealing it from the rest of the moviegoing public.
Think I’m imagining things? Screenrant.com agrees with me, and tells a story of a rather bloated and mismanaged production process, as well: CLICK
The last time I saw a movie ad campaign this afraid of its own subject matter was John Carter, and we all know how well that worked out. But hell, even though there’s some backlash on the zombie genre here and there, with the ongoing success of The Walking Dead both as a comic and a TV show I wasn’t aware that zombies were as much box office poison as Mars was apparently supposed to be. I had my own rant about the handling of John Carter a year ago, and again I’m seeing all the signs of a studio that can’t figure out how to market a property that should have been a much easier sell.
Max Brooks already distanced himself from the adaptation, saying the only similarity between it and his book is the title. But I expected that, especially when I heard Brad Pitt had been cast… the book’s format just doesn’t support a standard star-driven Hollywood picture’s structure. I suppose I even expected that they would discard Brooks’ shamblers in favor of the “fast zombie” option that’s all the Rage (har har) these days.
What I didn’t expect was a production that optioned a film of a book about a zombie apocalypse, and is now in headlong retreat trying to distance that film’s marketing from zombies. Has the Z Word become that much of a dirty word, unmentionable not just for genre reasons but financial ones as well? Or is this another cowardly misfire from Tinseltown that will end up making no one happy?
I know the handling of things so far hasn’t made me any more confident about spending money on a theater ticket. John Carter was still a decently entertaining film despite the fustercluck surrounding its failure, because some of the people involved still seemed to believe.
World War Z? I don’t know. All it seems to be looking to do is try to get as much money as possible on opening weekend, before the word gets out to the masses that the movie has those silly, silly zombies in it.