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'Z' for Zionist? The Horror in World War Z (2013)

Posted by Charles Reece, July 22, 2013 09:30am | Post a Comment
world war z poster matt ferguson

To me, about the only interesting aspect of the latest zombie film, World War Z, is how it dealt with a certain notion that it shares with all post-apocalyptic narratives, namely that the politics we (many liberals and leftists, at least) find iniquitous in the real world might find a moral purchase in the dystopian fantasy. (The film itself is arranged like a video game, where Brad Pitt goes from scenario to scenario, completing each mission, only to be told by the Side Character Who Knows that the possible solution lies at the end of another mission set in another context with its own set of possible actions.) That actions can produce different moral outcomes depending on context shouldn't be all that surprising, though, since most everyone is surely familiar with the adage about how even the most heinous of political systems might at least keep the trains running on time. That is, if you simplify the public good enough, like the purpose a junkie finds in addiction, one can find an advantage to any system. In the context of a zombie apocalypse, the desideratum is, of course, surviving one more day from the undead plague.

So, one thing a totalitarian regime like North Korea is ably suited for is to marshall all of its forces into closing off its borders and making sure none of its citizens is able to spread the disease should he or she become infected. Ideally, the advantage to martial law is to circumvent time-consuming debate during an emergency. This automatically gives an advantage to a totalitarian regime over a democracy, since only the latter has to bother calling for martial law, the former having already been operating under a military state preceding the emergency. Likewise, because North Korea recognizes no inalienable rights to selfhood, current Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un can put his state apparatus to efficient use by removing all the teeth from his entire citizenry. Not that infection was all that probable, since the country was living in a bubble at the time of the outbreak.

Individual rights, open borders and democracy are, it might be concluded, not the best way to stave off the zombie horde. That's a trade off I'd have no problem making. Better to have a respect for individual rights and be ill prepared for zombies than live under a dictator until the zombies arrive. I bring this up because most of the film's critics ignore whether World War Z is promoting the North Korean regime, which, by the end of the film (as far as the audience knows), is the only truly successful defense against zombie infection. Critics are more concerned with the other near success story, Israel:

For a solid 10-minute stretch, World War Z is the greatest piece of cinematic propaganda for Israel since Otto Preminger’s Exodus. While the rest of the world has fallen to cinders, Israel survives. After Pitt’s plane narrowly escapes doom during a bloody action set piece, he touches down at Atarot Airport. The Israeli flag, shown in glorifying closeup, ripples proudly in a sun-dappled halo. -- Jordan Hoffmann

Not only is Israel’s fanatical Wall Building proven to be justified, against the hordes of undead invaders, and not only are Jewish victimizations paraded to justify the aggrandizement of Israeli military prowess, but it’s Israel’s supposed humanism, and multicultural inclusiveness, which in the end weakens the fragile post-apocalyptic state and allows the zombies to overrun everything. -- Jesse Benjamin supporting Hoffman's spin

It went from being an action film into Zionism pornography an hour into the film. The film even justifies the Apartheid Wall and the institution of checkpoints which treat people like cattle as saving the world from zombies! -- a representative negative interpretation from those critical of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, quoted by Al Jazeera

World War Z is the most pro-Israel movie ever made. Or at the very least the most pro-Israel zombie movie ever made. -- Jeffrey Goldberg, a staunch defender of Israeli policies, ibid.

These readings, regardless of realworld political alignment, belie a simplistic approach to the horror genre. It's a fairly common critical reaction that goes something like this: because a horror story expresses a fear of X -- where X is a quality, entity, belief or whatever -- the story promotes that fear as justified. For this ideological approach to work, it tends to be selectively applied, as can be seen by the contrast between the general insouciance for what World War Z says about North Korea versus all the harping on what it says about Israel. No one cares much about the film's "justification" of North Korean policies, except for Benjamin (who, unlike me, took the time to read the book). He bites the logical bullet to suggest that the book and film promote totalitarianism.

In the book, unlike the film, Cuba is portrayed as ascendant during the disaster, due to its supposedly fascist state military control of the society. Worse, South Africa rehabilitates apartheid era tactics and leaders, at the request of Nelson Mandela himself, in an effort to stave off the zombies. It creates survivalist Bantustans for the privileged, and fake safe zones where lesser humans are fed to biters/zombies to buy time for the others to regroup. So the defense-of-apartheid trope is neither accidental nor limited to Israel. While the fate of North Korea is a mystery in the book, in the film we are told it survived by the largest feat of social engineering ever: it knocked the teeth of all 13 million inhabitants out in one day, thereby preventing zombies from biting and spreading their virus after they’ve shifted. Viva totalitarianism.

Zombies have proven a robust metaphor, and the central fear they represent is the loss of selfhood. You can see that running through their message of anti-consumerism, anti-racism and anti-war. There's even a postmodern zombie film, Pontypool, that has a deterministic language overriding selves to create zombies (the un-death of authors). The basic problem with all these negative social factors is that they make us less human, reduce our agency to that of mere bodies in motion, like atoms in a mechanistic universe. The mind begins to shut down in order to cope. Zombification is what it takes to use any technical device made in another country under less than optimal conditions for the workers, or going about our day without considering what a drone strike really does to the people in the area under attack. From there you get the return of the repressed analysis by psychoanalytically inclined theorists. What's been buried doesn't stay buried forever. The structural violence we ignore in our accepted institutions metaphorically returns as the subjective, interpersonal violence of the zombie body taking its vengeance on a world that's deprived it of self. Or something like that.

It's anti-humanism that's being metaphorically reflected in the crisis, so little surprise when humanitarianism doesn't much show up in the genre. What World War Z is depicting is the fear inherit in totalitarian control. It does, however, make some surprising nods toward humanitarianism by Brad Pitt's character being a retired agent for the United Nations and, most significantly, by having Israel make a distinction during the crisis between Palestinians and zombies. According to the Mossad agent explaining Israel's solution to the plague, they let in uninfected humans, figuring that it'll be fewer zombies that will have to be dealt with later on. This is an explicit acknowledgement of the genre's repression theme. Push something down long enough, and it'll pop up elsewhere in a much worse form. (I think this is a fantasy itself, resting not only on a sort of Freudian mechanistic view of the mind regarding forces and pressures, but on the Christian belief that sinners will eventually be punished for their sins. Where is the zombified analog to the Native American, for example? No, repress something long enough and it just might be forgotten as cities are built on burial grounds.) The controversy comes about because the zombies are attracted to the sound of Palestinians and Israelis singing together. The zombies climb up on each other big ravenous clumps high enough to get over the wall. Instead of a fear of humanism, the critics are taking it as an argument for an anti-humanitarian approach to the Palestinians. Should've kept them out, the argument goes.

I suppose the film could've escaped the above Palestinian-concerned criticisms and militant-Zionist support by having both peoples living out the plague together in a new utopian Israel. But wouldn't that also make the fantasy into an argument for wall-building and Israel's need for totalitarian control? In this scenario, Israel is still determining who's human and worthy of entering its borders, only now it's shown to be completely morally justified because it will ultimately make the right decision! The fear, which, again, is the ostensible purpose of the horror genre, would be doubly repressed under this now-utopian fantasy. Instead of the film reflecting the real world fear of otherness, the repression of which is the basis of an authoritarian grip on a society, this alternate version would be repressing that fear in the diegesis, too, making wall-building into a successful solution to fear, rather than a horrific instance of it. Wanting fantasies to solve world conflict only leads to more problems. Horror has one primary obligation that shouldn't be all that surprising, to horrify. World War Z doesn't really succeed at that (too much like a video game, for one), but surely having it show the success of an absolutist border control on humanity itself would not have made it any more successful. The horrific options it depicts are much preferable to anyone wanting to watch a horror film: a walled-in totally administered society that keeps the plague at bay by ripping everyone's teeth out versus one that eventually traps everyone within its walls as the plague spreads. Neither seems likely to calm realworld fears, but does a failed romance in a drama argue against love?

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Poster by Matt Ferguson.

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Horror (185), Israel (4), World War Z (3), Zionism (1), Zombies (16)