British terrestrial viewers finally got a chance to watch Frank Darabont's majorly hyped American zombie drama serial The Walking Dead on Channel 5. Nearly 1.5 million viewers tuned in last Sunday, which is actually a solid figure considering that the show had already aired last year on subscription television.
Zombie films are an acquired taste. After the eerie-to mordant-to eventually gory iterations of George A. Romero's classic zombie movies, the genre pretty much disappeared in the 1990s when horror films took on a cooler and more self-knowing guise. It was only with Zack Snyder's $30 million remake of Dawn of the Dead that the memento mori themed zombie subgenre came screaming into the 21st century and grossed in excess of $100 million internationally; influencing a slew of remarkably similar undead movies. In actuality the zombie craze started a little before Dawn of the Dead with Resident Evil and 28 Days Later being more identifiable precursors, though it can be argued that those films were more to do with infections turning people into rabid killers rather than the actual walking dead.
Zombie movies hark back to the 1930s with films like Victor Halperin's White Zombie being cited as Hollywood's first ever zombie movie. There were many more along the way, most notably Night of the Living Dead which rebranded the walking dead as ravenous cannibalistic ghouls ― a trend that lasted for nearly 50 years without much further advancement. There has been so little innovation in this particular subgenre that one struggles to comprehend why Hollywood continues to flog its dead corpse. Let's be honest, zombies are not sexy in the way that vampires or werewolves can be, nor are zombies capable of conveying any subtext other than the tired old 'mindless consumerism' metaphor that it's been saddled with for far too long. Other than the simple pleasures of watching etiolated zombies gruesomely devour living victims, there really doesn't seem to be any point in making these films anymore.
There is actually a more interesting point to do with this story other than simply defining what a zombie movie is, and that is to talk about what a zombie movie ― or in fact, any other type of genre movie ― can be if you have faith in a project and are willing to take chances.
Max Brooks' source material for World War Z was mildly appealing at best, pretty pointless at worst. I started reading the book on holiday and finished long after I got back. It was fairly boring read and hardly a page turner. I then got hold of J. Michael Straczynski's screenplay adaptation of World War Z which re-imagined the disparate stories that feature in the book as a paranoid conspiracy thriller in the vein of Alan J. Pakula movies from the 1970s, with strong geopolitical and governmental corruption undertones. The studio then hired Matthew Michael Carnahan to redraft Straczynski's script, infusing it with more memorable set-pieces.
Alas, what all this boils down to is studios not wanting to break away from safe traditions. What they want is to hammer out benign movies that adhere to established conventions, like it would be some kind of cardinal sin to do otherwise. For me, World War Z is not about having the chance to see another zombie film, but rather more, a chance to see something that dares to be different and respects its audience. This is a zombie film that's more than the sum of its parts.
Fleming has since reported that there may be a chance that World War Z will ramp up production perhaps as soon as June of this year after hearing that hot and heavy talks are going on with David Ellison's Skydance Productions and as many as two other financiers to share the financial load on the movie. What's more, Movieweb stated this week that legendary cinematographer Robert Richardson is currently prepping the movie right here at Elstree Studios in London, something that his agency apparently admits to (it actually features on his official resume, though Elstree deny production being based there).
The fly in the ointment might be reports that Paramount Film Group president Adam Goodman told Vulture website that the studio has signed a deal with director Marc Forster that bizarrely assures them of a PG-13 final cut. Goodman eloquently proclaimed: "We're really committed to making a big, kick-ass giant [zombie] movie with Marc Forster and Brad Pitt."
It's a statement that rings rather hollow when you consider it wasn't that long ago under the creatively bereft headship of Sherry Lansing that Paramount had a policy to only focus on remaking their past properties in the assumption that they were safer bets than developing new ideas for production. It was this strategy that made Paramount focus on bottom-line costs rather than market share, preferring to take fewer risks and make lower-budget films than rival studios. It seems that these old habits have been hard to shake off. The studio, like most other American majors, has neutered creative risk-taking, favouring to cajole filmmakers into sterilising genre products so that they conform to expectations rather than revitalise things and give us something unexpected.
This argument isn't really about World War Z. It's not even about zombies. It's actually about the freedom to create commercial entertainment without undue limitations as long as what is being created justifies such liberty. Should World War Z start filming in London in 6 weeks time then I suppose that will be a success of some sorts. An even greater success will be if the creative forces behind the project get to make the genre defying picture they can, just as long as they make the right choices. That will be hard to do because we're not living in a time where big movies can embrace risk and originality. It would be great if the studios can realise that sometimes taking the most obvious route does not create the most edifying film experience.
Maybe Paramount Pictures will make their movie adaptation of World War Z into an outstanding zombie thriller, or perhaps there's greater chance of the dead coming back to life.