Firstly, the title absolutely does not fit the movie’s tone. It would be better suited to a chilling biopic of a ruthless Saudi oil baron or a Korean revenge thriller rather than a small horror with a small cast, all of whom are trashier than the film’s lone zombie. Secondly, I kinda don’t care, because the ‘It’ in It Stains the Sands Red is actually referring to the main character’s period. And I call ‘disgustingly brilliant’ on that.
I’d first heard about this movie via its trailer, and I wasn’t expecting to like this one. I was expecting Twilight with zombies (particularly as lead actress Teresa Palmer looks like Kristen Stewart borrowed a smile from Scarlett Johanssen). Instead, what I got was a cute, sweet, self-aware love story in the time of zombie apocalypse.
Indeed, the trailer made it look like a cheesy ’90s-era teen sitcom with very little depth, and there is a bit of a mopey young adult shambling about all lovesick, but said lovesick mope is in fact a zombie named R (Nicholas Hoult). Not quite literally soft in the head yet, he’s able to communicate in bursts of words that he struggles to get out (much credit to Hoult for getting said words out without the forced tedium you’d expect of it), in the hopes of winning over Julie (Pamer). R can keep her safe for now, but keeping her from the other zombies proves to be a bit of a tricky one.
The zombies themselves, even the non “R”-type ones, are different from movie zombies we’ve come to know. They don’t lurch like Romero’s undead; they don’t sprint like Romero’s rebooted undead; they just shuffle back and forth, or make repetitive movements (such as the permanently-waving TSA agent). They are slow, aimless, mostly harmless (until they see fresh meat). And here’s where it lends itself to its own lore (and this is something I’m such a sucker for); zombies are evolving; some can communicate with humans, some remain in their current state, and some (whose survival mode kicked in too early) have mutated into literally ravenous skeletons.
I love when a movie creates its own logic and genre rules for an already-established genre; it gives the story incredible cohesion by telling the audience, “this is why zombies actually eat brains” or “this is what happens when zombies don’t eat properly”. Hoult and Palmer have great on-screen chemistry as the film’s star-crossed lovers (who didn’t get that Romeo and Juliet reference at the balcony?), and John Malkovich is perfect as Palmer’s on-screen military father. Dialogue is sharp (as is R’s adorkably self-conscious voiceover, which provides a relief from his mouth-fart-words), and pacing is quick and fast from the start. The zombie makeup is a little hokey; I know we’re trying to establish that R is a little different (and so he needs to be presented as somewhat attractive to the audience), but his makeup borders on sullen sparkly perma-teenage vamp goth, but without the sparkles. It’s a little distracting; it looks a little cheap, and too precisely-defined.
Clunky as this interpretation may be (again, it’s late), this is more than just a cute love story; it’s an interesting, if superficial look at survival, evolution and human betterment – man’s insistence to push on – especially in the face of near-human extinction…wrapped up in a cute love story. It’s very self-aware, almost as if it went up to Shaun of the Dead, had a conversation with it, and realized it didn’t want to draw too many comparisons (hard due to the similar genre mashup and light tone, but that’s really just about it). Pleasantly surprised at this one; I don’t want to even suggest I’m comparing it to Twilight by invoking both names in the same sentence, so I’ll just say that it’s just not like any zombie movie I’ve ever seen; even with its beatless heart, it has more genuine life in it than most other similar movies that hide behind a layer of snark or parody.
When I think of the most successful zombie movies/TV shows, they’re usually a bit of sombre affair, taking place in a barren, lawless, post-apocalyptic wasteland (like Zombieland, 28 Days Later or The Walking Dead). Or, if there’s a wee bit of civilisation left, it focuses on smaller, isolated incidents (such as [REC], which did touch on the military aspect, or Romero’s Dead series), or otherworldly settings (like Resident Evil). Up until only recently (even before The Walking Dead started), zombies were pretty much a niche thing. Then they exploded, cried for brains, and became teh internet’s new darling. They were the new bacon. They still are.
So, a few months back, when I saw the trailer for World War Z, the first thing that hit me was the sheer scale of what the filmmakers could afford to do. These shuffling, meandering, half-dead lummoxes were not only being given the big-budget, big-screen treatment, but they were also been given the Hollywood makeoever. Welcome to swarms of zombies, waves of the undead, piles – yes, PILES – of bodies using themselves to mount a wall to gain access to the sweet, sweet brains on the other side. These are infected people who are insanely fast (as is the virus that transmits it – seems to take effect within seconds), but the utter force of their bodies en masse is something akin to a bee swarm or a pretty violent sea wave. Unlike rational humans, these zombies have no problem piling upon themselves and using their collective weight to fuck everything up. Scores of them are shot (not effectively) by soldiers, but after enough of the corpses hang on to their helicopter, it’s dragged down and bursts into flames.
I would offer up a plot, but in zombie movies, there’s really just the one plot – they’re a threat, much like those movies that show a global pandemic (is that redundant?) of some deadly, fast-transmitting disease. Central to the story is Jerry (Brad Pitt), who gets his wife and two daughters to safety on a UN freighter, only to be ordered to go on a short mission with a nerdy scientist guy to get some answers on how to cure this thing. Needless to say, that mission doesn’t go well. And even though it gets off to an odd start, with each destination that Jerry travels to, the movie improves, partly due to the increase in bit-part-actor quality (including The Twelfth Doctor himself). This risks making the movie feel episodic, but with a title like “World War Z” it’s not too far-fetched for him to get around in this movie.
It was smart to have mostly unknown actors in this movie, particularly when screwing with the audience to confuse them about who to root for, because Brad Pitt is Brad Pitt, and is unlikely to trip up or do anything that makes him look stupid. At all.
Having not read the book, I felt like I couldn’t really have honestly reviewed this flick, especially because of the backlash of how it bore no resemblance to the source material. My only gripe was that the zombies weren’t terribly frightening – they lurch and get stuck banging their heads against walls, but they croak and groan like a sad, lonely velociraptor with a sore throat. For anyone who isn’t great with gore, there isn’t actually that much when we see their attacks; it’s mostly running, as if the characters are going through the best Haunted House attraction ever. Throw in some product placements (oh hai there Capital One and Pepsi) and the undead have definitely got the slick Hollywood treatment.
On the plus side, zombies have never been cooler. Kinda hoping they’ll stay that way.