Zombies Zero in on Zion

Is World War Z, which opens in Israel today, an 'Exodus' for the science fiction age? (This article may contain spoilers.)

Avshalom Halutz
Avshalom Halutz
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Avshalom Halutz
Avshalom Halutz

The zombie movies that have – tongue-in-cheek – terrified audiences since “The Night of the Living Dead” came out in 1968 tended to be low-budget affairs using unknown actors and implausible plots. But Brad Pitt, who produced and stars in the latest apocalyptic zombie film “World War Z,” which reaches Israeli cinemas this weekend, has abandoned these conventions; the movie had a huge budget of $190 million and features one of Hollywood’s biggest stars – and is based on a book by Mel Brooks' son.

Despite this, “World War Z” relies on a script that seems shallow and illogical (the saga about its endless rewrites and indecisions about its plot line has filled many column inches), but the State of Israel – which is featured in considerable portions of the film – gets particularly far-fetched treatment.

For those who haven’t seen or read up on it, the movie opens with a scene of mass panic reminiscent of the sights from the 9/11 terror attacks on New York: the human race is being confronted by a worldwide epidemic of zombies threatening to end human life on the planet. The American leadership enlists Gerry Lane (Pitt), a former United Nations investigator, to fight the zombies. His search for a solution takes him to Israel which, according to the film, is the only country on earth that is managing to fend off the living dead.

With Lane’s arrival in the Holy Land, the screen is filled with a huge Israeli flag with the sun’s rays shining through it with pompous background music, and the next half hour looks like it was taken from a science-fiction version of “Exodus.” But despite the film's apparent tendency toward glorifying Israel (and the cries of joy from my fellow Tel Aviv theater-goers indicate that many will share this interpretation), there are passing allusions and suggestive images that, particularly for an Israeli viewer, undercut the idea that the film is a hasbara fest.

Israel has defended itself with a simple solution: the Jewish mind has devised an immense separation wall that keeps the enemies – thousands of angry zombies, trying their best to enter Israel and destroy its people – out. And although Jerusalem in the film is not at all similar to the real Jerusalem (indeed, the scenes are shot in a replica ‘Jerusalem’ built on the island of Malta, which offered generous cash rebates for filming the production there), the wall is a dead ringer for the actual separation fence that separates Israel from much of the West Bank today – but without any sign of the Palestinian people as a parallel group on the other side of the wall, nor the wall's cost to them.

Everything here is imaginary. Even the checkpoints marking the crossing points in the wall are portrayed as a symbol of Israel’s openness: An array of potential visitors line up, amongst them Arabic speakers, awaiting entry to Israel; they sing joyful songs of peace in gratitude to their hosts. An Israeli intelligence officer explains to Pitt how Israel managed to confront the global epidemic with such unique success. He mentions the Holocaust and the murder of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, reiterating the narrative of Israel’s victimhood against unexpected evil then – and its fight back now, in the zombie age. Israel has never been a safer haven, and never has the idea of Fortress Israel been more appealing.

Representing Israel in the film is young Israeli actress Daniella Kertesz, who plays an IDF soldier known merely as Segen (which is not an actual Israeli name, but an IDF rank, equivalent to lieutenant – a strangely distancing act of naming that suggests that she is more allegory than individual), who guards Pitt. Her beauty and impressive strength look like an ode to the Hebrew warrior. Not that her prowess prevents her being bitten by one of the zombies, with the result that the all-American Pitt has to rush to her aid to excise the part of her (territories) that is no longer hers.

In any case, the painful sacrifice soon becomes irrelevant, as Israel itself is overrun by the zombies a short time later; having elevated Israel's military thinking and prowess the movie continues on to document its disintegration. Segen leaves an imploding Israel and escapes together with Lane to Europe where she is welcomed with open arms, and continues to fight the zombies as a citizen of a world where nations and race no longer exist. And although the movie doesn't show it, we can imagine that back in the Holy Land, the ultimate example of coexistence is emerging: Israeli and Palestinian zombies equally damned and destined to live together, forever.

Avshalom Halutz graduated from the Audio-Visual program at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy, Amsterdam and is a Day Editor at Haaretz English.

A publicity image showing Brad Pitt as Gerry Lane, left, and Daniella Kertesz as Segen, center, in a scene from 'World War Z.'Credit: AP
Scene from 'World War Z.'Credit: AP

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