Let’s start with a clarification - anyone familiar with Max Brooks’ novel World War Z and Marc Forster’s movie adaptation of it will know that the two works are drastically different in tone, execution, and accomplishment. Naturally, the biggest influence on Forster’s film is still the book on which it was based, but we’re not here to discuss the novel. In regards to the movie, what’s arguably most disappointing about Forster’s WWZ is how remarkably familiar the entire piece feels, especially when compared to Brooks’ novel, which felt so refreshingly new. Actually, one of the more unique aspects of the film itself is how the people within Forster’s world seem almost instantly comfortable with the concept of zombies. Most movies about the undead feature a lot more “WTF” questioning when the recently-dead arise, but Foster’s apocalyptic tale definitely builds on public’s knowledge of the zombie genre, both within its plot and in the audience watching it. Since World War Z has such firm roots in classic zombie lore, it’s worth asking: which groundbreaking works in the history of zombie films, TV shows, and video games most influenced this massive summer hit? In chronological order…
Day of the Dead (1985)
When Gerry (Brad Pitt) gets to South Korea and finds an underground bunker of soldiers, it’s difficult for any fan of the genre not to immediately think of George A. Romero’s third zombie film, his commentary on how our global power structures respond to chaos. (Hint: they do so poorly.) In fact, many of the WWZ plot points - from the way Gerry is coerced into trying to save the world in the first place to the W.H.O. facility where the film ends - feel most cinematically inspired by Day of the Dead in terms of plotting. Romero’s film is also a piece in which science and firepower both end up being insufficient to save mankind, and Gerry is repeatedly encouraged throughout WWZ to approach the pandemic from a new angle. There’s even a bit in Day in which an arm is amputated quickly to stop the spread of infection, a scene that also occurs in Israel in World War Z. But, admittedly, the influence here feels more thematic than direct – building walls and bunkers filled with weapons won’t stop the spread.
28 Days Later (2002)
In terms of tone, World War Z sometimes feels so much like Danny Boyle’s groundbreaking horror film that the Oscar winner practically deserves a royalty check. The decimated urban landscapes, the emphasis on travel for the main character, the military response to the infection, the zombies who are not only faster than what we’ve come to expect from the genre over the decades but who are also faster than you – they are all major aspects of both films. Seeing the action scenes in World War Z, it’s difficult not to think of Boyle’s approach to the genre. And the fact that both films climax at a government-run facility in the U.K. has just got to be a mere coincidence, right? Right?
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
While almost everything you know and love about the zombie genre can be traced back in some form to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, it’s Zack Snyder’s unexpectedly awesome remake of the latter that puts the heaviest creative fingerprints on World War Z. Snyder’s best film took the action-speed approach of Boyle’s film and turned it up a notch. The opening scenes of suburban domesticity gone horribly awry in Snyder’s film would feel perfectly at home in the first act of Forster’s film, in which we go quickly from a family making pancakes to people being eaten on a Philadelphia street. The quick-cut style, in which we barely see the zombies for more than a second for the majority of World War Z, also feels inspired by Dawn of the Dead, a film that presents the undead not as former loved ones but as something entirely new and extremely powerful. The zombies are not merely resurrected humans in Dawn of the Dead or World War Z. They’re a force of nature.
Left 4 Dead (2008)
Maybe it’s because it starts in Pennsylvania as well, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the video game most played on-set during the production of World War Z had to be Electronic Arts’ Left 4 Dead. Sure, there were probably some Resident Evil fans on the crew (and everybody – film crews included – needs to play The Last of Us as soon as possible), but the “survivors vs. hordes” aspect of World War Z is most reminiscent of this landmark game, one of the biggest hits of the ‘00s. Scenes like the battle in Israel, where a horde of zombies ascends a wall surrounding a city, could have come straight from a Left 4 Dead sequel. Like 28 Days Later, Left 4 Dead portrays its enemies as victims infected by a pathogen, rather than reanimated corpses, which becomes a major plot point in World War Z as well. There’s also a sense that sound attracts enemies that WWZ and Left 4 Dead share (although that’s an even bigger plot point in The Last of Us), but it’s mostly the horde approach to the zombie genre that’s common to both.
The Walking Dead (2010)
Of course, Robert Kirkman’s Image Comics series is an influence on any fan of the genre knowledgeable enough to want to make their own zombie movie, but it’s the TV show that really pushed World War Z into existence. Without the success of AMC’s massive hit, do you really think they would’ve spent the money they did on this film? It might never have existed without the current resurgence in the zombie genre and a lot of credit for the second wave of undead popularity (after it waned in the late ‘00s) belongs with AMC’s beloved show. They certainly wouldn’t have gone back for the expensive reshoots on World War Z if The Walking Dead wasn’t proving every week that there’s a massive audience for this kind of thing. As the opening weekend proved (with the highest opening gross in Brad Pitt’s history), zombies are definitely bigger than ever.