The “Z” stands for “Zirony.” (It’s a silent z.)

I went to see the $150 million zombie undeadtacular World War Z starring my doppelgänger, Brad Pitt, and a cast of thousands of very fast and very digital revenants.

Yay, the movie

I had been quite worried about this movie since I adore the Max Brooks “oral history of the zombie war” and didn’t want to see it shot in the head, so to speak. Luckily, my fears were (mostly) unfounded — it’s a very, very suspenseful film, and Brad Pitt is so natural it doesn’t even seem like he’s capital-A “Acting.”

Sure, it doesn’t have much to do with Brooks’s novel, but let’s face it, a really faithful film adaptation of the novel would have had to be essentially Ken Burns Presents Zombies at War and not much of a compelling visual narrative ’cause that ain’t what the book was about.

So two thumbs up on the movie. Go see it — but be warned: It respects its source material in the way of zombies being treated as a serious existential menace, and this is one unrelentingly grim ride. How a war movie should be, actually, not glamorizing but really showing pain and sorrow and weapons that end up more of a problem for those wielding them than for their ostensible targets.

Irony has teeth what bite

Anyway, now that I have spoken upon the movie (I’m sure everyone is breathing much easier now, a-heem), I must address the intense irony of World War Z as it has made its way from the page to the screen. In particular, the issue of China.

Those of you who have read the book may remember that Patient Zero was a young Chinese boy who either was bitten by or scraped his foot on something that was on the bottom of a shallow, muddy river near his rural village. He did the 12-hour zombie drop and revive, and boom — the zombocalypse was born.

In the movie, they’re not quite sure who Patient Zero was (there might be multiple simultaneous or near-simultaneous cases), and it seems to have started in South Korea instead of China. (North Korea SPOILER ALERT has come up with a novel solution to infection: Pulling out all the teeth of all 23 million residents of the closed-off nation. Hurray?)

You may be hungry for human flesh an hour after eating a Chinese zombie

This may not seem like a big deal, but O Gentle Reader, it is huge. In the book, Max Brooks the Novelistic Interviewer (as opposed to the author and son of Mel) presents evidence after piece of evidence that China’s secrecy — not wanting to show weakness or ask for help, which as we know is how China in real life acts on the world stage (which is their perogative, of course, to act how they want) — is to blame for the epidemic not being snuffed out early on.

Also, Brooks makes a very pointed … um, point that human organs trafficked from their political prisoner hosts and which made their way around the world carried the Solanum virus silently and made it seem like people were randomly dropping dead and reviving as zombies. In the book, I believe, exactly what happened is not discovered until well after the War is near its end.

Official opacity. Unethical medical practices. Lies and recriminations instead of buckling down in a multilateral way to solve a problem. These are all like China (and sometimes other countries including the US, but I mean as an apparent rule of behavior) in the real world, and so seem like really salient points in the novel of WWZ.

I’m not bashing China here — this is a book about zombies taking over the world, after all, and so we shouldn’t necessarily look to it for trenchant political science — I’m just saying that the public face China shows to the world works extremely well in the novel as a place where the epidemic could spread before most of the world was even aware of it.

Money talks, but all mine ever says is “BLARGH KILL HUMAN ARRRRRRGH”

The irony of all of this is that the filmmakers changed the location of Patient Zero from a very plausible (for the reasons noted above) China and its buddy-in-secrecy North Korea to a bland-if-not-nonsensical South Korea. You can almost here the producers saying with an aw-shucks grin, Hey, Asia’s Asia, right?

Well, no, not really, because South Korea is a close ally of the West and it ruins the — anyway, why is it now South Korea instead of China? The answer, as usual, lies in the green stuff that isn’t gangrenous zombie flesh: Money.

China is the number-one overseas market right now for American action movies. It is huge — so huge, in fact, that foreign revenue can count for more than half of a movie’s gross, and so every effort is now taken to avoid offending our easily offended neighbors to the East. (Remember that character called “The Mandarin” in Iron Man 3, but who had an accent placing him somewhere between Baton Rouge and Raleigh? There you go.)

Not offending potential customers is not a bad thing in itself, but it weakened WWZ with the heavy irony that in the book, one of the reasons the exploding zombie infection is already a pandemic by the time China admits it’s even happening is because officials want to placate China, our important trading partner, and not, you know, imply that they are hiding on one hand and spreading on the other a world-killing epidemic. It’s not exactly political correctness — it’s more like business courtesy. And it kills 3/4 of the world.

That’s the book. In the movie, people just ignored the “zombie memo” that came out of South Korea (except the Israelis, who are tough as goddamn nails but not into SPOILER ALERT turning down the stereo when a hundred thousand sensitive-eared undead are waiting fifty feet on the other side of a wall). It puts the blame … nowhere, really, because would you believe a memo saying zombies are attacking? (Okay, bad example — if you’re reading this then you, like me, would probably totally believe it. Forget I said that last bit.)

Everybody play nice, we’ll all be undead soon

It takes WWZ from a haunting and all-too-plausible novel to a scary but kind of random horror movie. Which is fine, really — I love horror movies, and this is one is particularly well done, acted, directed, and paced. But by not wanting to offend the Chinese, the producers of the movie act exactly as the government officials do early in the novel, valuing smooth relations over the possibility of doing something really singular and right.

If anybody wants to talk WWZ, book or movie, have at it in the comments below and I’ll jump in.

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