Ebola Zombies and Terrorist Animals?: Welcome to World War Z

(Photo: Paramount Pictures, United International Pictures)

World War Z is Directed by Marc Forster, starring Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, and Daniella Kertesz (2013).)

Presented by:

Michael Lundblad, English-Language Literature, University of Oslo
Tone Druglitrø, Science and Technology Studies, University of Oslo

Introduction

Really? A zombie movie? What does World War Z have to do with illness, disability, or animality? Many viewers of this blockbuster film might see it as mostly entertainment, particularly if you enjoy things like zombies, monsters, apocalypses, catastrophes, and maybe even horror movies. But there is a lot more going on here, which the academic fields of science and technology studies, along with literary and cultural studies, can help to reveal.

Beyond the recent zombie renaissance in movies and TV series, the film can also be connected to other genres such as the outbreak narrative (with films such as Outbreak and Contagion), other histories (like the “War on Terror” and the history of medicine), and contemporary legacies of imperialism, militarism, and biopolitics.

We hope you might want to debate some of the implications suggested here!

According to U.S. literary and cultural studies...

Literary and cultural studies today tend to focus on cultural politics, exploring how texts both reflect and produce how various people think about issues such as race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, and, more recently, disability and animality. Texts can affect us in different and powerful ways, often both reinforcing and resisting problematic forms of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and speciesism.

Literary and cultural critiques of a film like World War Z would likely begin with the assumption that the zombie can be seen as a metaphor for other cultural fears and anxieties, connected to contemporary cultural politics. Even if many viewers might not consciously make these connections, links with a wider range of texts, genres, and discourses can reveal how political responses to real-world threats (such as terrorism or a viral pandemic) can be justified and naturalized.

According to science and technology studies...

Science and technology studies scholars have not typically studied literary and cultural texts. They have been more concerned with scientific and technical reports and how they establish facts about the world as well as influence politics and make valuations. There are of course exceptions, such as the important contributions of Donna Haraway in Primate Visions and Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, and, most recently, Staying with the Trouble. In the context of science studies, Haraway demonstrates the floating boundaries between nature and culture, fiction and fact, science and popular culture.

Haraway’s perspective is relevant when reading WWZ as a literary text because she reminds us that constructions of and distinctions between nature and culture, between fact and fiction are political moves. For one, it involves acts of differentiating between nonhumans and humans (and among humans). What kinds of collectives of humans and nonhumans are suggested by WWZ? What kinds of claims about the film might be interesting for us to consider?

1. The zombies are like a virus.

Michael Lundblad (ML): The zombies in the film evoke the kind of panic caused by recent viral pandemics, such as the 2014 outbreak of ebola in countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, which resulted in roughly 15,000 lab-confirmed cases and over 11,000 deaths.1 The extreme response in the film includes the military taking command of the U.S. government, countries around the world shutting down civil liberties, and states of emergency being declared while establishing quarantines—or even a wall in the case of Israel—in their attempts to control and hopefully stop the outbreak. While it makes good sense to fear a deadly pathogen such as ebola, the panic and hysteria in the film seem to suggest other cultural fears and anxieties mixed together.

Tone Druglitrø (TD): The film shows how the lethal virus transforms humans into zombies, so in one way the zombies can be viewed as up-scaled embodiments of the virus. The virus (or “Nature”) has taken over the once “civilized” human. More interesting, maybe, is the manifold work that the zombie is doing in this film. Zombies do the work of a cyborg as it appears as an object in which the clear distinctions between microbes, animals and humans have collapsed as well as between nature and culture, fact and fiction.

2. Brad Pitt (and the WHO/UN) can save the world.

ML: Brad Pitt’s character does not exist in Max Brooks’s original novel version of World War Z. But the film gives us the straight white male hero that it thinks its audience needs. It gives us an epidemiologist who traces the virus back to its origins, in order to somehow, heroically, find the basis for a vaccine or a cure, or, in this case, a discovery that can lead to a strategy for fighting back: Gerry Lane (Pitt) figures out that zombies won’t attack humans already afflicted by serious if not terminal diseases. The logic of the film gets fuzzy toward the end, but it’s clear that we’re supposed to put our faith in white, “western” men and health organizations, whose knowledge and expertise are supposedly superior to people and institutions in the less “civilized” places where outbreaks often begin.

TD: I think it is safe to say that WWZ does not make any original moves in terms of ascribing the role of heroes and villains. Most catastrophe films seem to depend on the white male hero that is trying both to save his family and the world, and WWZ is not an exception. The white male hero Gerry Lane is a strong, sober, Christian person (almost Christ-like), and the wife is portrayed as a graceful mother who endures the drama but is fully dependent on her husband to save her and her children. The stereotypical family is accompanied by a stereotypical, or better yet old-school, way of portraying the power structures with US governmental institutions, together with the UN and the WHO as key actors in saving the world. In sum, I do not think the film breaks new ground in terms of imagining a more positive and affirmative world: that is, a different (possibly better) kind of world.

3. The zombies are like animals.

ML: What’s most disturbing to me about the end of this film is the way we’re supposed to think that it’s okay and necessary to kill zombies with flame-throwers and bombing raids over large gatherings, such as the sports stadium. The closing scenes include images that don’t seem quite so different from footage of air raids and refugee crises we might see on the news today, which makes it easier to connect the zombies being wiped out with other populations the U.S. military might want to wipe out in relation to its “War on Terror.” Should these zombies be seen as somehow more like animals than human beings? Another frame of reference here is what happens to nonhuman animals when there is an outbreak of a disease that can be spread to humans, such as Mad Cow disease, or foot-and-mouth disease: the animals are simply “culled” by the thousands. But these kinds of animals are not seen as maliciously trying to attack or infect humans, while the zombies in the film seem that way. By this logic, does World War Z suggest that terrorists (most often associated with Islam in general, in problematic ways) are actually worse than animals? Maybe we should be getting even more concerned about the cultural politics of this film…

TD: In outbreak narratives, animals are usually portrayed as the suspect specimens, but in this movie it seems as if it is the infected human who is the problem. It seems like it is a humanized zombie (a dehumanized human), rather than an animalized human, if that makes sense. This is an interesting shift from earlier catastrophe accounts such as Outbreak where the monkey, i.e. the animal, is the problem that needs to be contained. It seems as if in WWZ the problem is humans out of place, and as such can be read as a commentary on current political situations where there are migration crises. When using the concept of matters out of place I think particularly of Mary Douglas’ way of describing and explaining how some things or some people are regarded as pollutants in specific cultural and historical settings. How does someone or something become that which does not fit in? That which creates danger? And that which makes the pure impure? I think that this interpretation is strengthened by parts of the movie being situated in Israel, where the issue of Palestinians being “out of place” is prevalent.

(Photo: Paramount Pictures, United International Pictures)

4. The zombies are like terrorists.

ML: It seems pretty clear to me that these zombies are indeed linked with the way many people think about terrorists or suicide-bombers: they are a monstrous threat, with no thought of self-preservation, mindlessly throwing themselves, in this case, over the wall in Jerusalem, swarming and attacking, and trying to infect anyone who is not like them. In the so-called War on Terror we are not supposed to wonder why terrorists might feel the need to fight back against what they see as threats. And we are supposed to distinguish categorically between terrorist acts that are supposedly monstrous and U.S. drone strikes and bombing raids that are supposedly justified. Whether the threat is terrorists or ebola or zombies, doesn’t this film seem to suggest that we should trust the government, the military, and global health organizations to do whatever it takes to protect us? What kinds of collateral damage, though, are you willing to accept?

TD: Are the zombies representations of terrorists? I think that the zombies as portrayed in the film can be regarded as humans infected with “Nature” as mentioned earlier. “Nature” with capital N has traditionally been demoralized and unruly, and regarded as the opposite of “civilization”. Terrorists are often linked to the “uncivilized”, to pollution, and as such I think it is possible to see a close link between the representation of zombies and current constructions of terrorists. It is a typical depiction in literary texts on apocalypses that threats to modernity, such as viruses or terrorists, always “enter” the modern world (the US), but “reside in” or “emerge from” supposedly uncivilized societies/places (read: the Middle East).

Let’s discuss!

What do you have to say about the film or our responses to it? How might other academic disciplines or people in different contexts analyze this film? What do you think about these lines from the film? “There’s no room here for non-essential personnel.” “Mother Nature is a serial killer. . . . She’s a bitch.” What other key lines or scenes do you want to discuss?

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12014-2016 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13 Apr. 2016, accessed 31 Aug. 2017.