What will audiences take away from the scorched earth of "World War Z"? It might be the nerve-racking sound of snapping zombie teeth. It might be the sight of the undead in a pyramidic body pile, scaling the walls of Jerusalem. It might be the aerial shot of the panic-stricken, fleeing their infected brethren and streaming through the streets of Philadelphia. It might be the troubling idea of zombies that can move so fast.
"So freaking fast," said actress Mireille Enos (AMC's "The Killing"), who plays Brad Pitt's wife in the much-anticipated, blockbuster-to-be opening Friday, and directed by Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball"). As Karin Lane, wife of Pitt's Gerry Lane -- UN investigator and reluctant hero ("Dude!" you want to say, "It's a zombie apocalypse!") -- Enos is sidelined during the more cataclysmic encounters with the undead. Didn't she want to kill more zombies?
"I guess so, but then I would have had to be face-to-face with them," she said. "And even on set, they were played by these big, strong movement artist dudes, and they would run really fast. There's a scene when a door opens and we don't think they're there, but they are, and that was really, really scary."
Based on the novel "World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War," by Max Brooks (son of Mel), "WWZ" gets down to business without as much as a blink: The Lanes and their daughters (Sterling Jerins, Abigail Hargrove) are driving home and they hit the kind of traffic jam that might only happen on the Long Island Expressway, minus (perhaps) the voracious, flesh-eating mutants dragging people from their cars. They barely escape the backup, and only escape the city because Gerry is the kind of guy who finds solutions by parachuting into crisis zones. The world has become a crisis zone. The UN sends a helicopter.
THEY'D RATHER BE IN GLASGOW
The set of "WWZ" was something of a crisis zone itself, according to published reports, but producer Dede Gardner, who, with Pitt, runs the production company Plan B, said it was far less fractious than it was made out to be.
"Was it a challenge?" she said. "Yes. Was it enormously more challenging than other projects? Not really, despite a lot of what was written." Certain aspects of the production actually went swimmingly, she said, notably the decision to use the Scottish city of Glasgow as a substitute for Philadelphia.
"It fit beautifully," she said. "We tried London, and there were places where we could find the space we needed and the open stretches of road, but we needed to tie it up for two weeks. Which is impossible in London. So we went to Glasgow," she said, where the locals welcomed them with open arms, and were generally overjoyed to have a movie budgeted at a reported $200 million being made in their backyard.
"There are places that would be very happy to never have another movie made there again," Gardner said. "But what we were reminded of in Glasgow is that there's a real mystique to moviemaking -- as long as people aren't overly familiar with it."
MORE THAN A ZOMBIE MOVIE
Are they overly familiar with zombies? "WWZ" may be the biggest development in necrophilia since "Night of the Living Dead" (see sidebar), but the genre has been getting a workout in recent years, from AMC's hit "The Walking Dead," to "Shaun of the Dead," "Dawn of the Dead," "Juan of the Dead," "Land of the Dead," "28 Days Later" and "I Am Legend."
"I think 'World War Z' is more than just a zombie movie," said Gardner, "but the representations on-screen of all these apocalyptic visions, I think, have to do with the fact that things in the world are happening so fast, and if you can create something like we have and somehow put a hopeful vision on it, that appeals to people."
"The real world has real things to worry about," said Enos. "To be scared in a safe way, by something we know is not possible, it allows you to play. There's something fundamentally satisfying in being scared this way. It's pretend."
"But if you wanted to let your brain go," she added, somewhat ominously, "zombies are a metaphor for a lot of things we don't deal with . . . " like immigration, disease, xenophobia, terrorism and isms of every imaginable variety.
"I hope that's true," said Gardner, "because I think it's true of the best entertainment, that people can bring their own baggage, and apply their own values and expectations to it. Or, of course, they can just sit back and be entertained."
THESE ZOMBIES LIVE ON
While vampires seem to be about immortality and sex, zombies seem to be about immortality and . . . eeeeeyuck! Still, this week the zombies are winning, with the release of "World War Z," which imagines a world in which the bite of the undead turns you into a homicidal maniac in 10 seconds, and for the rest of your unlife. Whether it's a classic of a genre that includes such dubious entries as "Zombies on Broadway," "Zombie Vegetarians" and "Zombies! Zombies! Zombies!" remains to be seen. Like zombies themselves, however, the following films have proved to have staying power:
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) Shot in glorious black and white, George Romero's proto-zombie nightmare (and parable for the Vietnam era) was made for $114,000, but paved the way for an entire cemetery's worth of undead cinema.
ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992) Aka "Evil Dead III," this comedy shocker was directed by Sam Raimi, who would go on to, among other things, the "Spider-Man" trilogy starring Tobey Maguire. It stars cult actor Bruce Campbell, who, as Ash Williams, is trapped in the Middle Ages and has to battle a contingent of corpse-like warriors to return to the present.
28 DAYS LATER (2002) Danny Boyle was a long way from "Slumdog Millionaire" when he directed this popular update on the zombie-virus genre, which revised a few of the tropes (fast zombies, for instance) and created a disturbingly plausible end-of-the-world atmosphere.
RE-ANIMATOR (1985) Extremely gory cult film directed by Stuart Gordon and starring fan fave Jeffrey Combs is based on H.P. Lovecraft's "Herbert West -- Reanimator" and chronicles the antics of West (Combs) in bringing the dead back to life. Inspired "Bride of Re-Animator" (1989) and "Beyond Re-Animator" (2003).
THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920) German Expressionist masterpiece and one of the more influential films of the silent era, this horror film by Robert Wiene stars Conrad Veidt (of "Casablanca" fame) as the "somnambulist" Cesare, who is kept in a coffin-like box and does the evil bidding of the mysterious doctor of the title. A zombie film for people who don't like zombie films.