Script Symbology: Sea of Zombies – Big Budget Movies

By John Fraim

Hollywood seems to have placed a heavy bet on the table with its mega-budget zombie, vampire and super-hero comic-book films in the summer of 2013. Somewhere north of a billion dollars was spent creating various alternative worlds surrounding the films Man of Steel, Lone Ranger,World War Z and White House Down. But so far, in July of 2013, the bet has not paid off and industry commentators report one great flop after another in the mega budget films. The disasters at the box office more than matching the disasters created in these films. A quick review of the website Rotten Tomatoes on July 3 garners the below data of critics combined ratings for the films and money gained back so far on them.

sea of zombiesLone Ranger = 23% Rotten Tomatoes
White House Down = 47% (24 million)
Man of Steel = 56% (20 million)
World War Z = 68% (29 million)

One wonders if these mega-disasters might offer a “final nail” in the coffin of a “zombified” Hollywood as a new paradigm replaces the old one.

This new paradigm was predicted a few months ago by no less than Steven Spielberg and George Lucas during an event at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and reported in the 6/12/13 Hollywood Reporter. At the event, Lucas and Spielberg tell film students they are learning about the industry at an extraordinary time of upheaval where even proven talents find it difficult to get movies into theaters. Even the creator of the Star Wars brand laments the high cost of marketing movies resulting in an urge to make them for the masses while ignoring niche audiences observing that television is much more adventurous than film nowadays. Lucas notes the interesting stuff will end up on the Internet or television.

One of the results predicted by Spielberg and Lucas is that big budget mega-movies might be forced to operate under a different economic model than regular Hollywood films. In effect, they would open more like special sporting events with audiences charged premium admissions. In fact Spielberg goes as far as predicting an “implosion” in the film industry set-off by a number of mega-disasters at the box office. Disasters like the mega-budget films of the summer of 2013 were shaping up to be?

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If this implosion is coming as Spielberg and Lucas predict, it will not only lead to new types of films and distribution methods but also new types of screenplays. The form of these new scripts is still shaping up and the screenwriting world still seems to be in Act I of this developing story of change. Some preliminary observations are possible, though, and we’ll make them in other columns.

For now though, although providing little insight into the new types of screenplays needed by a new Hollywood, the summer group of mega-films say a lot about Hollywood’s perception of the outside world, or its perception of what Hollywood thinks is the perception of the world today within its target audience. One might suggest a particular symbolism of place within the contemporary world is offered in these films more than any type of moral theme or advice as how to act within this place.

In essence, the great summer disasters at the box office say more about what Carl Jung called the surrounding context or “collective unconscious” of culture than the content within this culture. It reminds one of Carl Jung’s remarkable book Flying Saucers written when he was 83 years old at the end of his life. In Flying Saucers Jung noted that the worldwide “rumor’” about flying saucers presented a problem that challenged psychologists for a number of reasons. Unlike most in culture who centered around the question of whether flying saucers were real or not, Jung considered the fantasy aspect of flying saucers and the reason for the existence of this mass fantasy at the time.

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So too, Hollywood’s 2013 summer blockbusters might also be examined for the mass version of American popular culture in 2013 they project. Perhaps the greatest symbol of this new fantasy is suggested using the metaphor of zombie vampires in Brad Pitt’s World War Z. It is a world where those great paradoxical symbols of America’s founding – the symbols of equality and freedom – are locked in perpetual battle.

Within this world, the hero is Pitt’s Gerry character, a former UN troubleshooter hero who fights to maintain the freedom of his family from the “infected” equality of zombies.

Here the hero’s battle is not against the traditional villain, no matter how powerful this villain might be, but rather against the concept of equality itself symbolized by the growing “infected” population of humanity. As the hero moves to protect his family in this threatening new world, it is significant they find temporary safety on an iron island in the ocean in the form of a Navy ship. The ship still symbolizing the safety that islands have traditionally provided from the encroachments of civilization.

The zombies are a mean bunch not a bunch of slow moving slackers like the zombies in the Days of the Living Dead television but move with an almost supernatural speed like an invading army of insects running over all parts of culture. But who are these zombies and what is really the symbolism behind them? Do they represent an increasingly dumbed down popular culture full of reality shows and “Bridezillas” who demand (in one episode) for more “embezzlement” on wedding dresses. Are they the “low information” voters that conservative commentators see invading the political system? Are they that great mass of illegal aliens that might become American citizens? Are they “infected” with the type of cultural “otherness” that Edward Said observed in his brilliant book Orientalism? Are they the fanatic music and sports fans, the zombies in front of mindless evening television programs or video games or popular mind-numbing diversions like iPhone, iPads. Are they simply the regular “demographic” of modern American culture where 70% are now on prescription drugs?

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But just as important as what the zombies in World War Z symbolize is the symbolism associated with their origin. While World War Z provides a nod back to the 1950s classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (certainly one of the original Hollywood zombie films) it is essentially different in that the villain “infection” of Invasion was delivered by a space capsule and is extraterrestrial in origin while the villain virus in World War Z is worldly in origin originating from genetic mutations gone wild like a spreading cancer.

In this strange new world, freedom is maintained not through a fight with the infected “zombies” but rather through avoidance of them or use of a “camouflage” that makes the non-infected regular humans invisible to the infected zombies. Hero Pitt has propounded a theory to save the world: the infected zombies do not those seriously injured or already terminally ill since they are unsuitable as hosts for viral reproduction. Pitt volunteers to inject himself with a terminal but curable pathogen at a facility of the World Health Organization in Cardiff, Wales.

When Pitt does not die, a “vaccine” derived from deadly pathogens is developed that can act as camouflage for the troops battling the infected and for fleeing civilians. Hero Pitt and his family are relocated to an isolated spot in Nova Scotia. As the human offensive against the zombies begins, humanity now has hope. But Pitt’s character Gerry warns, “This isn’t the end, not even close.”

So Act III of one film really turns into Act I of another film as the non-infected begin to wage an epic battle with the infected of the world. The ending seems adequate and perhaps plays into Pitt’s intent to leave things open for a sequel to this first World War Z? Whatever the case, this seems to offer symbolism surrounding the current cultural malaise in America and Hollywood with the battle between the symbols of non-infected freedom of those living in isolation the infected equality of the popular masses.

Ironically, Hollywood is both a source of the infected zombies as well as a type of last stronghold against them. It both manufactures them and seems to need protection against them. In the end, these mindless infected zombies of popular culture have been asked to buy into the great mega-disaster films of the summer of 2013: aliens from Superman’s planet that have come to destroy earth; a White House under attack from a paramilitary group; Zombies from a mutant virus overriding the planet. The audience might be zombies created by Hollywood but Hollywood hasn’t been able to make these zombies buy enough tickets to prevent that coming implosion of the old Hollywood paradigm predicted by Spielberg and Lucas.

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