By Wil Forbis
September 1st, 2013
As previously reported in the pages of this fine web zine, I read Max Brook's novel "World War Z" several years ago and loved it. One might think that blood drenched, viscera eating zombies would have trouble coming to life on the pages of a book but such was not the case. Brook's tome was well written and thoroughly engaging, rich in rumination on the likely effects that a worldwide zombie epidemic would have on human history. The novel's clever conceits and unexpected plot twists made for a quick page turning.
As a result of my love for the book, I was eager to see the Brad Pitt helmed movie version of "WWZ" that came out recently. Even though I'd heard that it had experienced a troubled production, including rewrites and reshoots, I had high hopes for the film.
Thus I was quite disappointed when I saw the film and realized it was a stinking pile of feces stained dogshit with almost nothing connecting it to its source material. Gone were the unexpected plot excursions and the interesting and often inspiring characters. In their place was a meandering, stupid story and Pitt's blandly heroic, un-conflicted hero. I left the theater in a seething rage that is becoming all too frequent.
Around the same time, I began to take notice of a series of Facebook posts an old bar crony of mine, Robbie Rist, was producing. Robbie is an actor and he was advising people to watch a Scy-Fy channel movie in which he had a role. The movie was titled "Sharknado," and, from what I could gather, was about a tornado that sweeps up sharks from the Pacific Ocean and deposits them in downtown Los Angeles (where all disasters take place.) It sounded incredibly stupid and I decided, fresh as I was from the "WWZ" fiasco, that I wouldn't waste my time with it.
My mom was visiting at the time and one evening I walked into the TV room to find her perusing a program. "It's a movie about sharks in a tornado, " she reported, somewhat aghast at the words coming out of her mouth. Within seconds I saw Robbie onscreen. What the hell? I figured. Might as well check it out.
The next hour and a half were pure television entertainment. "Sharknado" is an absolutely ridiculous film but---in the spirit of the best of camp cinema---it wears this badge proudly. It delivers exactly what one would expect: comedic dialogue, wanton destruction, and jaw snapping sharks being shot, blown up and chainsawed to death. What more could you ask for?
During the next few days I mused over an interesting observation:"World War Z" cost hundreds of millions to make, starred the biggest leading man of my generation and I hated it. "Sharknado" cost around 27 cents, starred a guy who'd been on the original "Beverly Hill 90210" and I loved it. How could this be?
As with all great philosophical questions, the answer can be found by studying Plato. The esteemed Greek philosopher believed that reality as we saw it was a dim representation of actual reality. He famously compared reality as we observe it to shadows on a cave wall. Human beings he felt, do not see the true essence of things; we see merely vague illusions.
"Sharknado" succeeded because it was true to its essence. It was a dopey, horror comedy and it embraced this. "World War Z" failed because it did not know what it was. Was it an all-out horror film, a la George Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" (or even Zack Snyder's remake)? No, it wasn't gory or scary enough. ("WWZ" was essentially "kid friendly horror.") Was it a medical detective story a la "Outbreak" or "Contagion"? I dunno... sort of, though one with a big CGI budget. "WWZ," by failing to define its essence, failed to define its goals as a movie and this made it impossible to know whether it achievied them.
On top of that, "World War Z" was just poorly written. There's was no sense of ratcheting tension, no sense of real danger. The hallmark of the great horror films is that some of the characters---sometimes characters you really love---get killed. (Even "Shaun of the Dead," which was something of a horror satire, got this.) Nobody you like in "WWZ" dies. (This is partly because you don't like any of the characters but that's another complaint.) And unlike the book, the movie "WWZ" is devoid of clever plot twists. The main conceit of the film---the means by which Pitt formulates a way of stopping the zombies---barely generates a "meh."
"World War Z" had the sense of being written by committee. When a story is written this way, any interesting proposed plot twist (say, killing a key character, or having a likeable character betray the group) is bound to upset someone in the room. If everyone working on the story is granted veto power, all life gets sucked of a tale.
As I step back here I can see that my response to these two films is really emblematic of my reactions to movies in general lately. Big budget movies seem less and less interesting while low budget flicks that almost fall between the cracks win my love. Another big film of the summer, "Man of Steel," was a complete waste of time. I was so bored by Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy that I didn't even bother with "The Hobbit." I found no reason to waste any time with the new Star Trek. These movies seem indistinguishable from each other and I don't think I'm alone on this view. A recent LA Times article about the state of the movie business notes that big budget movies, dependent on massive CGI expenditures, are doing less than expected at the box office. Why?
Several factors may be behind the turnabout, according to Hollywood analysts, including studios doing a better job of serving niche audiences and consumers experiencing blockbuster fatigue.
I’ve felt that fatigue. You find yourself thinking, “Do I want to see the movie where the hoard of zombies attacks New York or do I want to see the movie where the robot-alien attacks Los Angeles? Eh, think I’ll stay home.”
“Everything looked watered down and the studios were left trying to distinguish their movies,” said Ted Mundorff, chief executive of Landmark Theatres.
On the flip side I've found a number of great low budget flicks on cable, Crackle.com and Youtube. The crude horror farce "Bloody Bloody Bible Camp" is great fun. So too is a movie I first read about in Steve Anderson's column for this site, "I Didn't Come Here to Die." Two British horror flicks, "The Cottage" and "The Devil's Chair" should not be missed. These movies are not great works of art and they probably had a cumulative budget of 47$, but they were true to their essence and had the willingness to experiment (the hallmark of scrappy, independent filmmaking.) And they are not bound by committee writing. The same LA Times article from above quotes Jason Blum, producer of successful low/mid budget horror flick “The Purge."
Blum noted that similar sense of financial freedom helped him make satisfying choices within the movie. “I can kill my lead halfway through if the story calls for it. You could never do that with a $100- or $200-million movie.”
In essence, the auteur films of the day are being made in the low budget range, by filmmakers who don't need to worry about pleasing the committee. But may be awhile before that attitude can prove its worth as an investment to Hollywood. Until it does, I'll be staying out of theaters.