World War Z zombies as Israel/Palestine metaphor

This is a big-budget, Hollywood action film about zombies taking over the world with Brad Pitt as the hero. It’s fun in parts and exciting, with stunning special effects, though it also feels disjointed, as if the whole doesn’t quite come together. It’s pro-UN, pro-American and and (largely) pro-Israel. This is what I want to focus on here (if you haven’t seen it, there may be some spoilers so look away now).

First, some thoughts on this from others. The Times of Israel (which contains this line in the headline: the film “is the greatest piece of cinematic propaganda for Israel since ”˜Exodus.’”):

Pitt is a UN specialist (his exact function is a little vague) on the hunt for Patient Zero in the zombie plague that has turned the world’s major cities into war zones of frenetically paced, flesh-chomping zombies. His ordeal takes him from the pit of hell (dramatized for the screen as Newark, New Jersey, naturally) to the last civilization left standing: Jerusalem.

For a solid 10-minute stretch, “World War Z” is the greatest piece of cinematic propaganda for Israel since Otto Preminger’s “Exodus.” While the rest of the world has fallen to cinders, Israel survives. After Pitt’s plane narrowly escapes doom during a bloody action set piece, he touches down at Atarot Airport. The Israeli flag, shown in glorifying closeup, ripples proudly in a sun-dappled halo.

Pitt gets an audience with the Mossad chief (played by Ludi Boeken), who explains that Israel sprang into action when it first caught wind of the potential zombie threat. It built enormous walls in a matter of days, adding to Jerusalem’s pre-existing historical defenses.

Boeken explains how the Jewish people were slow to respond in Europe during the 1930s, equivocated during the escalation of Arab armaments in 1973 and paid for it both times. Now, a system exists where 10 high-ranking individuals are pooled to take every threat seriously. If nine agree to dismiss it, it is the duty of the tenth person to investigate further, even if it seems foolish. Boeken’s character was prompted to take a stray message from India about “the undead” seriously, and this effort granted them the time to act.

Boeken takes Pitt on a tour, where we see, in sweeping wide shots, the effectiveness of the Israeli military. Jerusalem is the only safe zone in the world and they are feverishly processing and accepting as many survivors of the zombie plague as they can. “Each person we save is one less we have to fight.”

The film makes every effort to show that it is a diverse crowd. Haredim, secular Jews, Muslim women holding Palestinian flags.

So, now the punchline (spoiler alert!).

The zombies are drawn by sound. This big kumbaya moment leads the gathered, multicultural crowd to start singing. This joyous cherished vision of unity and peace – an image the whole world has been waiting for – is what winds up leading to the DESTRUCTION OF THE CITY.

The zombies hear the singing (and its amplifier feedback), create a pyramid of snarling, undead bodies, climb the wall and start killing.

Basically, if it weren’t for those damn peaceniks, Israel would have survived. Hey, who the hell wrote this movie, Meir Kahane?

Okay, so Israel falls to the zombie plague, too. But”¦ at least it lasted longer than everybody else. That has to stand for something, right? Plus, when Pitt makes his brave escape to head to the next location in this globe-hopping movie, he takes Daniella Kertesz as the brave, beautiful and badass IDF soldier along with him. (“Get him to the Jaffa Gate!” she shouts to her fellow soldiers.)

The world audience at least gets to see how Israel puts up a good fight, and despite the destruction one could still read it as something of good, fun PR on an international scale.

The LA Times:

Certainly there’s a case to be made that [director Marc] Forster is offering a feel-good message. Peace is possible, even in a larger time of global darkness, Forster seems to be saying, and right in the very spot that so much blood has been shed. All it takes is a little maverick thinking.… 

But does the theory hold up?

The wall, after all, turns out to be futile. The zombies form a giant human pyramid and spill into the sanitary areas, and the best-laid plans of an inventive Israeli government turn out to be for naught.

Instead, the message seems simpler: Building divides to keep out a threat, no matter how rooted in preservationist logic, doesn’t work.

On the other hand, the movie does seem to be going out of its way to cast rank-and-file members of the Israeli military in a positive light — Lane takes a young Israeli soldier with him on his further globe-hopping adventures, and she becomes a key ally in helping him fight the virus by addressing it at the source.

And the policy that accompanies the wall is a benign, even favorable one. As the Mossad official tells Lane, the Israeli government is willing to take in healthy people from any religion or country, a kind of open-door policy that would incense Pat Buchanan or Steve King—or, for that matter, right-wing Israeli politicians.

It may well be that there’s no single message intended by the film which, as with Max Brooks’ novel (where the wall has a less salutary effect and in fact leads to an uprising among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox) leaves a lot open to interpretation. So open, in fact, that at least one commentator actually… believes… the film is an indictment of… dovish… thinking.

Still, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—and, for that matter, conflict in general”–World War Z” offers what seems like at least one clear takeaway. The most aggressive policy won’t be useful in the face of a serious threat. A long-term solution probably involves even the most creative form of reactive thinking–it requires a willingness to contemplate the root cause.

Mother Jones:

So there you have it: The worldwide zombie pandemic does for the Middle East what… Barak and Arafat… simply could not. Think of it as a one-city… solution.

There’s no doubt that Israel is viewed in the film as the promised land (until it’s not). The way the IDF is framed as kind and humanitarian. The wall that Israel has built around the country – explained and justified by a Mossad agent as a natural reaction to Arab aggression since 1948 (although Palestinians are not named specifically) – suggests that the film-maker and writers wanted to portray the Jewish state as a (temporary) beacon from rampaging zombies (read Arabs?) It’s indeed true that in the end the wall doesn’t protect Israel and the country is over-run. But the camera lingers over the flapping Israeli flag (as it does over the US flag) and no other country is portrayed in the same way. This isn’t accidental, it’s sending a message to those who know anything about global politics.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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