There haven't been very many PG-13 zombie movies, and for good reason. The entire genre depends on you being able to see humans-- undead humans, but still humans-- killed in brutal and unsentimental ways, usually with a massive blow to the head. Unlike usual horror movies, where our heroes are the ones avoiding being killed, zombie movies allow us to identify with the killers, and with that kind of destruction the blood is going to flow freely.
But as a big-budget, summer blockbuster zombie movie, World War Z had pretty much no choice but to go with a PG-13 rating, which makes it by far the most bloodless zombie movie of recent movie. Because it's such a big movie, with more scenes of zombie hordes overrunning a city than close-up moments of zombie destruction, it gets away with it… to a certain point. Can a PG-13 movie really be a zombie movie, or do you need the blood to even understand the story? Katey and Kristy duke it out below in our latest Great Debate.
KRISTY: Typically, when it comes to violence in American movies, I am deeply troubled when filmmakers pull their punches. For instance, how Christopher Nolan shows plenty of violence in The Dark Knight, but avoids blood to the point of absurdity.To my surprise, I wasn't bothered at all by World War Z's attempt to pull its punches on gore to score a PG-13 movie, and actually felt this restraint made it a better movie. But Katey, you were quick to disagree with me on this point.
KATEY: To be clear, I'm no huge fan of violence, and I was way less bothered by The Dark Knight Rises than you were-- I have no trouble making the intellectual bargain of forgetting about blood in exchange for really impressive action. But the action in World War Z is mangled to the point of near-incoherence, and the many times that it avoids showing blood only makes it that much less clear.
KRISTY: I took issue with The Dark Knight Rises because that movie is trying to affect "gritty realism" but then avoids the reality of blood to not incur the wrath of the MPAA, and by doing so the film is being irresponsible in its depiction of the consequences of violence. However, in World War Z, the violence is in the midst of riots and carnage, that I didn't feel like blood was needed to get the point across. Plus, because it's more fantastical in its premise--being about the reanimated dead and all that--I didn't feel it demanded the same attachment to realism.
But I didn't have a problem with the way the action was cut. Was there a scene in particular--without getting into heavy spoilers--where you felt blood would have made things more clear?
KATEY: There is a scene in which Brad Pitt lops off someone else's limb. It is a very dramatic, very crucial scene. And yet we don't see it happen, because they can't show the blood. That's the kind of thing that wouldn't even be excessive-- it's key to the storytelling. But the PG-13 keeps it offscreen and totally unclear.
KRISTY: I do think you have a point there. I wasn't personally bothered by that action being off-scene, but I have spoken with others who thought that moment in particular was, well, butchered for the rating.
Still, I didn't realize World War Z was PG-13 until its final act, where--and I will go into no spoilers that matter by saying this--the most aggressive violence enacted against zombies is purposely and obviously framed out of the shot. But I was so freaked out by everything I'd seen so far, that I was frankly relieved to be spare a closeup or even a wide of it.
KATEY: Yup. That bothered me at the end too. We've earned the right to see these monsters-- and they are monsters-- have their heads bashed in. That's the entire basis of the zombie genre, a way to see humans as complete alien monsters and then get rid of them. In all the scenes before that, zombies got killed in ways we could barely see because the camera was moving so damn much. But in the end, when the filmmaking gets much better, you really realize what you're missing
KRISTY: That's true, when the focus is narrowed the lack of focus on the violence against zombies becomes more obvious. It's strange for me, because I am a fan of horror movies. I am not averse to outrageous gore in films, and I love zombie movies in particular. But perhaps because so many of these zombies still looked so human, I didn't want to see the ghoulish business of bringing them down focused on to closely. Before I had actually seen the film, I am confident I would have said the opposite.
KATEY: I think there's a way to make a huge-scale zombie movie like this, where it's a focus on an entire city being overrun and not just one person vs. the horde, that could work with PG-13. And scenes like the stairwell escape in Newark, where it's dark and all about the visceral fear, work well with no need for gore. But there are moments where it is glaring... and a lot of moments where I really could have used a little more attention to blood just to understand what the hell was happening
KRISTY: Did you find the zombie mob scenes scary?
KATEY: Yes... when I wasn't frustrated by them. They do a really good job of making it seem overwhelming and powerful-- like a force of nature, as one person put it after the screening. But then moments that get closer up, like when Pitt has to kick one of the zombies off the side of his car-- you realize what you're missing when there's no blood. They can't really show you what's happening, and it becomes more irritating than scary.
KRISTY: I think this might be the source of our division. The zombie riot scenes I found uniquely horrifying because it melded the panic and frenzy of abrupt catastrophes with the horror of zombies turning from your loved ones to a face-munching threat. I totally agree there are problems in some of the closer shots, but I was so effectively freaked out by the wave of growling snappy jawed zombies that I really didn't notice the lack of blood and outright gore until the third act. The tension of those scenes and some of the later ones pulled me through. And by the third act, when I did see the punches pulled, I was honestly so overwhelmed by everything that came before that I was fine with leaving out more graphic shots. Though I do wish the intention to censor themselves was not so pronounced. But for you, World War Z would have been a better movie with more blood, the kind of thing an R-rating would have allowed?
KATEY: I think World War Z would have been better if it were allowed to be itself-- to use blood when it needed to for storytelling, to rely on the massive waves of zombies when it needed to do that. It's doing something different with the whole "mass panic" angle of a zombie invasion, and for that part you're right, you don't need the blood (though I still hate the way those scenes were shot). But I think to really tell the full story of what a zombie invasion would have been like, they needed more blood. And the moment you start thinking about that, it takes you out of the story.
KRISTY: That makes sense to me. While I didn't miss the blood and gore, I hate the idea of filmmakers having to limit or censor their visions to appease the loathsome MPAA gods, who rule over movie marketability.
KATEY: Yup. And while I get why they didn't want to make a massively expensive R-rated zombie movie, I now do want to see the no-holds-barred version of this in which you can actually tell what the hell is happening.
Should World War Z have been rated R?