‘World War Z’ and Jack Kirby’s Mindless Mass of Humanity
It's a hit. Shockingly enough, zombie fans slinked and dragged their way to Brad Pitt's new movie World War Z this past weekend. I just got done writing about Masters of the Universe villain Hordak and his Evil Horde. Now I'm writing about Jack Kirby's The Horde, which judging by the WWZ trailer, looked very similar to his unfinished apocalyptic disaster novel.
As a rule I don't like zombie movies, comics or video games, but that possible Kirby connection got me to buy a ticket to this one. Kirby's book was a globe-trotting, breathless 1970s adventure story about a gathering mass of frenzied humanity that grew and grew as it rolled across the globe, becoming a living engine of social destruction. I went in wondering, "Is that what this is? An adaptation?" According to this seminal article from the Jack Kirby Collector, it's been bouncing around Hollywood since the '70s. Are we finally seeing the fruits of that?
When I go into movies, I try to go in cold. I try to avoid information about a movie once I decide to see it, so I didn't know about Max Brooks' book that this is based on. Brooks approaches his fiction with a matter-of-fact style that is similar to H.P. Lovecraft, focusing on concrete everyday details to make the supernatural elements as convincing as possible. Like Lovecraft, some of his fans take his mythology a little too seriously. The phenomenon of people who take the zombie apocalypse seriously, who view it as a solid possibility, is something I find baffling. The machines-take-over scenarios of Terminator and Battlestar Galactica, those make sense. They're based on science. Of course these machines that we're giving more and more control over our lives are going to kill us, but zombies? Ridiculous.
So I went into this movie with no knowledge of the process of this film other than an eerie similarity to the unfinished Kirby disaster novel. The Horde was Kirby's "serious" project. In the 1960s and '70s there was a popularization of the notion that exponential population growth was propelling the world towards a crisis of overcrowding. When Kirby started work on his book in 1969, novels like Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! (later adapted into the film Soylent Green) were on bookshelves handling similar fears with similar alarmism. Kirby grew up in a crowded New York ghetto and spent his early adulthood in the real-world apocalypse of World War II Europe so he must have felt these concerns very deeply. The disaster scenarios he wrote about grew out of his own fears. He wrote it as convincingly as he could and ultimately abandoned the book because according to his wife, Roz Kirby, "He got scared, he said every time he was writing something, it was coming true in the newspapers, and he was so sure that he was going to end the world!"
In issue #16 of The Jack Kirby Collector, Ray Wyman describes working with Kirby on The Horde. "We got this picture of a tank commander on the border frontier of some unfortunate country, waiting for the Horde to come. When they do come, they are a rabble so large that they stretch for as far as the eye can see. Armed only with farm tools and clubs, this huge mass of people descend onto their position like locusts. The tank commander orders his unit to shoot. The bodies pile up, but more of them keep coming."
You can understand why I would think this movie might somehow be based on Kirby's story, in spite of there being no mention of Jack Kirby or any of the people involved with The Horde in the credits. Did they whitewash Kirby out of this one like they did with Argo? As the movie itself unfolds, it becomes obvious that this is a separate endeavor, but how close? In credits, I noticed Damon Lindelof and J. Michael Straczynski, both sometime comics writers. They've gotta be Kirby fans. They've gotta know about The Horde. Max Brooks has written comics, too, and more tantalizingly, on the audiobook version of World War Z, Brooks himself plays the role of a character named, "Kirby Impoinvil." KIRBY!? AHA!! "Impoinvil" must be an anagram of some sort. If I can figure this out, I'll have the key to crack the code. I limp vino? I mop vinil? Li in movi pi? "Lie in movie pie!" I combed the movie for similarities to Kirby's plot. The big tip-off I was waiting for never came. At the core of Kirby's story was a charismatic leader fomenting and guiding the horde. I assumed this movie wouldn't have so literal a villain as Kirby's story, which I imagine was a relic of his comic book storytelling, where you're always looking to embody every abstract idea with a specific character. I did think maybe we'd find some kind of leader or group that engineered this somehow. But that never came. In Kirby's The Horde, the madness was transmitted by a severe case of peer pressure, while in WWZ it's transmitted by a bite.
There's no human hand at the core of this transformation of humanity, instead it is blind biology.
It wasn't until the third act of WWZ that I realized this wasn't The Horde, but a different Kirby creation. I went in expecting an unofficial adaptation of a Kirby novel, it ended up being an unofficial adaptation of a Kirby GRAPHIC novel. This was a movie version of Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth. The globetrotting across a deadly self-destructing future earth. Bradmandi: Last Dude on Earth. He even solves problems like Kamandi would, like when he saves a passenger jet full of people by throwing a hand grenade inside it.
The third act is a confined-space zombie drama at the Wales headquarters of a World Health Organization laboratory. It wasn't until this movie that I realized the World Health Organization's acronym, the Kirby-worthy W.H.O. Brad Pitt: Agent of W.H.O.
Brad has the vibe of a grown-up Kamandi, the dim earnestness, the faded surfer dude look. Brad's ( I don't remember his character's name) adventure inside the W.H.O. headquarters is a less-exciting remake of the best issue of Kamandi #10.
I realized what I was watching when a character in the movie mentioned a "deadly pathogen. High mortality rate." Eureka! MORTICOCCUS!!!!!
Brad has to sneak through the corridors of a research facility, trying not to wake dormant zombies.
Once the zombies are awakened, it's on. There is a lot of holding doors shut to keep out the press of frenzied plague-carriers.
Unlike traditional zombies, the ones in this movie have better agility than the living. Zombie purists hate running zombies, but these high energy zombies resonate with me. Everybody I know has taken up running in the last few years, myself included. This movie, and its idea of jogging as a virus seems right on.
Brad and Kamandi have the same mission, to bring a bestial humanity back to its former glory. In this comic, Kamandi is fighting giant mindless rabid bats. The zombies Brad fights are scarier to me, but for a different reason than intended.
The thing that bothers me about zombie movies, and zombie video games even moreso, is that it looks an awful lot like the heroes are gunning down unarmed civilians. Crowds of unarmed civilians. I know they're supposed to be zombies and all, dead not alive, but in a wide shot they sure to look like people. In games its worse because you are the one doing the gunning down. Hitchcockian viewer complicity had nothing on the actual participation of modern games.
At the end of the film is a chilling image, what looks like documentary footage from an infra-red camera, showing a military drone launching a missile into a zombie-infested football stadium. From the distance shown, it looks like the good guys are launching an aerial bombardment of a Super Bowl Halftime Show.
Unlike The Horde, World War Z has a happy ending, where Brad has the tools and the determination to end the zombie plague. "Our war has just begun." That probably speaks to the difference between the science fiction of today and the science fiction of the '70s. Ironically enough, today's sci-fi is based on the ultimately optimistic aesthetic of the superhero comics Kirby pioneered, while the sci-fi of the '70s was based on the pessimistic scientific projections of the time based on food shortage and exponential population growth. This movie straddles both traditions, but it would've been much better if it had a superhero or two in it. At the halfway point in the movie, Brad amputates the infected hand of an Israeli soldier. I kept hoping she'd get a bionic replacement, preferably one that had a flamethrower on it, or a rifle, like Rose McGowan's prosthetic machine gun leg in Grindhouse. This superhero movie renaissance we're living through has changed audience expectations and I think filmmakers need to up their game.