Sunday, 17 April 2011

‘Z’-Grade Film Industry

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.

Try telling that to film executives at Paramount Pictures. Mike Fleming wrote an interesting piece in Deadline about the studio's fraught efforts to make a movie adaptation of Max Brooks' bestselling zombie apocalypse tome, World War Z. For the last 5 years Paramount has twice renewed its option to make the film, brought on a team of A-list writers to script it, attached an esteemed filmmaker to direct and even talked Brad Pitt into starring as the lead protagonist. Unfortunately, none of it has helped to get the movie greenlit. It seems that the studio eventually realised that this particular film about a zombie holocaust will set them back $125 million to produce and will likely incur an adult rating due to the fact that movies about zombies usually depict mass carnage and gore ― things you'd have thought they'd have figured back in the day when someone at Paramount read Brooks' manuscript and decided to option it.

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.

World War Z was not going to be some flash-in-the-pan zombie flick; this was going to be a mature horror thriller set against the backdrop of an epic zombie apocalypse. It was a smart script and presented a carefully constructed plot with strongly crafted characters. This is exactly the type of genre picture big studios should be falling over backwards to make, something that gives viewers more than they thought possible. Sure, it does feature standardised zombies, but the context of the story is remarkably fresh and exciting.

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.

Somehow you get the sense that a lot of compromise and creative conciliation had to be made in order for World War Z to even get this far, which is not far enough because I still don't believe it will get an official greenlight, at least not in the way I was anticipating.

The problem in cinema, more so than in television, is that there are huge costs involved in making movies. A lot of money gets used up within a very short amount of time and the revenue streams can take a remarkably long time to come through, sometimes too long. Studios think that they know what audiences want to see in movies and they tailor them accordingly. This isn't the 1970s when the basic economy of the studios collapsed and radically new types of risks were taken with conventional genre films. Studios now know that bovine teenage boys are their main clients. Furthermore, with international markets becoming ever more important, studios don't want to make stories anymore complicated or original than what they need to be.

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.


  1. Wow that is a very good deconstruction of zombies and Hollywood. I think there are two problems in Hollywood: 1. No executive really wants to make a movie. It costs too much and increases the chances they will get fired. 2. Because of #1 if they are forced to make a movie, they want it to be "just like [well known success], but different." Unfortunately, the "different" part usually takes the form of a roman numeral.

  2. The walking Dead is a great show! The best part is that they will continue to make more seasons of it!

  3. Zombieland was a commercial success for Sony and it was a creative risk that paid off. That success along with the previous zombie films like Res Evil, 28 Days Later and Dawn all paved the way for the success of The Walking Dead. I think the team behind WWZ need to take notice and not worry so much about the almighty PG-13 rating. And I hate that they think simplifying a story is the way to draw an international audience. It's like speak loud and slow translated onto the silver screen. They should just film a great movie to the very best of their ability and the audience will come, the viewers will understand. Provocative post, I loved it.

  4. Yeah i loved walking dead, amazing show ;D

  5. Love the walking dead! Great blog man, im following :)

  6. I hate zombies, so won't watch anything to do with them. I'll take your word on all this. :D

  7. walking dead received a lot of good reviews over here in america, but i actually didn't watch it. so i can't really say if it's good or not... my sister loved it though.

    <3, Mimi

  8. zombies are goin'eatcha!
    we all love the zombies...

  9. You make some great points about World War Z. It could be (have been) something very special, a la 28 Days Later.

    Nice post!

  10. I enjoy zombie movies. It is a total guilty pleasure. WWZ sounds really interesting...

  11. Really interesting post, I need to watch Walking the Dead.