Zombie Cinema: Based on the Bestselling Book

For our second zombie soiree this week, a couple of films that I watched recently which were based on books, though I’ve no idea if they were actually bestsellers (it looks good in the heading though).

And yes, I do know that in Matheson’s novel the culprits were referred to as vampires, but for all practical purposes in the film they might as well be zombies.

Before we get started, notice how similar the two DVD covers are, with the gun packing American superstar centre stage, striding boldly through the ruins of the world and into the sitting rooms of the viewer. Subtext, people.

I Am Legend (2007)

A failed attempt to cure cancer with a genetically engineered virus kills off most of the human race and transforms nearly all the survivors into crazed mutants who cannot endure the sunlight (we’ll call them zombies). One of the survivors is US Army virologist Robert Neville, who believes himself to be the last man alive, roaming the streets of New York with his dog in search of other survivors, interacting with shop window dummies and desperately broadcasting to the world, killing zombies or capturing them to test a cure on. He’s pretty much going insane, and Will Smith in the lead role plays it convincingly. The death of his dog pitches Neville over the edge, and he seems set on suicide taking as many zombies with him as he can, which is when we meet two other survivors, Anna and the young boy Ethan, who conveniently remind Neville of the family he lost and give him a reason to carry on with his life and research. He finds a cure, again conveniently, and sacrifices himself so that Anna and Ethan can escape to reach a community of humans hiding in the north of the country. I enjoyed this up to the final act, when it deviates significantly from the source material, and not at all to the better. It offers a grim and hopeless scenario of the end of days, with some excellent special effects and in the person of Neville a compelling portrait of madness held in check. In the book a new zombie culture emerges, to whom Neville is the bogeyman (hence the legend moniker). Here it’s business as usual for America behind the white picket fence, with the cutesy community of survivors, and Neville’s legend status is derived from his discovery of a cure, with the subtext that, thanks to good old American scientific knowhow, life will go on as normal. The apocalypse is only a bump on the road to the achievement of the American dream (Hollywood version). It felt like all the good work of the film’s first three quarters were thrown away in favour of overdosing on saccharine, sentimentality and family values, while betraying the power and message of Matheson’s novel. Great sfx, too bad about the story.

World War Z (2013)

Given the documentary style of Max Brooks’ novel, this film was never going to be a faithful adaptation, at least not without stretching the reportage parts of Night of the Living Dead to feature length. And, sure enough, apart from the fact that the world is at war with zombies, there really isn’t that much in common with the source material. Brad Pitt is retired UN investigator come crisis management expert Gerry Lane, who is lured back into the fold when the zombie plague breaks out. Initially his task is to shepherd a leading virologist to various parts of the world in search of a cure, but before you can mumble ‘Brains’ with an appropriately lust filled tone of voice his charge gets killed. It’s up to Gerry to find a cure. In Israel he sees something that sets him off on the right track, arriving just in time to see Jerusalem’s walls come tumbling down under the weight of zombies, and getting out before they can chomp down on him. At a WHO facility in Wales he gets to test his theory, and with the credits about to roll Gerry uncovers the stop gap measure that will enable mankind to cling on until the sequel (scheduled for 2017 release). The book on which this is supposed to be based was an original outing, a work that brought something new to the zombie subgenre. This however is just the usual zombie apocalypse nonsense, with a big name star, a big budget, and an sfx department that earns its money. Brad Pitt, who I usually like and consider an underrated actor, here seems to realise that despite star billing he is playing second fiddle to a zombie/sfx orchestra, and doesn’t really bring much to the table. You never get the feeling that he’s genuinely scared or upset or happy even – he’s just a poker faced template on which those emotions may be writ but don’t go any further than skin deep. He seems to just be going through the motions, and of course you know that he is going to succeed, so there really isn’t much in the way of plot tension or surprises. The film is at its best with the large scale scenes, as when the zombies run riot in the opening scenes set on the streets of Philadelphia, or the battle in Jerusalem which, visually stunning as it was, seemed horribly contrived (didn’t the IDF see the zombie horde coming, or think to bomb them before it got to the point where bodies were piling up over the walls). It was fun, but also I think forgettable, at heart just another home crowd pleaser in the America saves the world genre of film making.

Other book inspired zombie outings, anyone? At the moment I can’t think of any, but I’m sure there must be some.

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