World War Z: Creating the Zombies

World War Z Opens June 21

The most critical elements of the film are the zombies themselves. Forster and company wanted to honor the genre but not be beholden to it, to create something original and organic to this particular story.

“With zombie movies, ultimately, everyone goes back to George Romero’s because they are so iconic. More recently, there was ‘28 Days Later’ and so on. So, as a filmmaker, you always try to do something new and different even though you are working within the framework of its history. And that’s what we tried to do with this. There are certain classic zombie elements that we brought along, but their movements and motivations will be different,” Forster says.

Specifically, filmmakers based their behavior on the “swarm theory,” a pattern of movement seen in nature that he underscored even before these quite unnatural creatures appeared on screen.

“It’s the way flocks of birds or fish or ants move together. There is almost a ‘swarm intelligence’ to it. I thought it would be interesting to see these zombies, who have no intellect since they are walking dead, react in this swarm mentality. There is not a real direction because the zombies are the undead. But as a whole, there is an unconscious consciousness.

When they are moving at this hysterical pitch, the zombies are their most dangerous–however they are not always aggressive. In ‘World War Z,’ the best but still horrific glimpses we have at the zombies are when they are dormant.

“When they are not provoked, they are stagnant, slow and wandering. When the feeding frenzy starts, it’s almost like a shark that smells blood. In the moment they sense that there’s something to attack, they will just go for it. And that we establish very early, that they’re drawn by sound,” Forster says.

The filmmakers deliberately and conscientiously created a credible “backstory” for zombie behavior; to do so, like Gerry, they began with their origins.

“A lot of work went into citing our zombie mythology in science. We hired a few different consultants who talked about everything from infectious disease to hive behavior to physiological defense mechanisms. How people or animals protect themselves in the face of a parasite, for example, and how do they survive that. It seemed much more interesting to us to root our zombies as much in fact as possible, knowing full well that they are not real. And then the second phase was figuring out how to express that. Once you get into that cluster of thought, a whole bunch of other doors open. There’s the zombie that has just turned – what the does the turn itself actually look like? How long does it take? How fast do they then turn on someone else? Do they need to be provoked to do so? What are the conditions that would provoke them? What does a zombie look like that’s been a zombie for an hour vs. one that’s been a zombie for a month? Then there’s obviously the question of speed. Zombies are historically slow. But we wanted both slow and fast zombies because different environmental circumstances in our film allowed for it,” Gardner says.

To create the zombie legion, the team turned to a combination of effects and artists – dancers, stunt people, prosthetics, make-up, CGI and carefully choreographed camera moves. And not every zombie was the same from scene to scene; each had their own specific dance, as designed by choreographer Alexandra Reynolds. The first human we see succumb to the zombie infection is played by movement specialist Ryen Perkins-Gangnes.

“I studied how people start to move when they have epileptic seizures and we based the change from human to zombie on that. Ryan is an incredible movement artist and was very good at conveying that contortionist movement, that literally was all him. I mean we added veins popping and we see his eyes change with CGI. The eyes were very important to me – I thought once the eyes change, the person really is the walking dead,” Forster says.

The future zombies began to learn their dance at workshops in pre-production where they drew on many influences, from insects to police attack dogs to Javier Bardem’s performance in ‘No Country for Old Men.”

“We started by trying to find out the zombies’ state of mind so we thought of movies that perhaps had a character without any humanity. We thought that Javier Bardem’s character in ‘No Country for Old Men’ had an interesting feel about it. So we spent a lot of time trying to recreate what it might feel like to be him, so the movement came from within. Alex also brought in many different images of insects feeding, how rapacious and relentless they are and their pace which can go from really fast to slow and rhythmical and really fast again. Also she brought in videos of Israeli police dogs, the way they latch on with their jaws and their bodies would flail and their spines would be twisting all over the place. So we became this sort of insect-y, jaw-driven creature devoid of any humanity or sense of future or past, just stuck in the present moment,” Perkins-Gangnes explains.
Alexandra Reynolds also worked with animation director Andy Jones and her “troupe” of zombies to explore and refine their motion. She did extensive and eclectic research to choreograph their gruesome dance.

“The script had such incredible imagery that truly resonated with me. I wanted to have an effect that was visceral and real and would absolutely stay with the hero and the audience. I looked at some Victorian medical journals. I examined how the body can go into shock and paralysis. All the time we were looking for something that we could no longer recognize as human but could stay in the realm of what was possible. I didn’t want to go into fantasyland; I wanted it to be much darker than that. Marc’s aspiration was that the zombies are unique and different and he asked me to improvise and experiment to find that new language,” she explains.

Costume designer Mayes Rubeo also contributed to this “new language,” with the idiosyncratic look of each zombie.

“We wanted to show the process from human to zombie through the costumes. Not everyone has the same bite, not everybody is hurt or traumatized in the same way. If you look at every zombie we have, every one of them has a specific design, including the aging of the wardrobe, the condition of the clothes, the amount of blood. We wanted to portray each one as an individual in a certain stage of the epidemic. This all came from our director Marc Forster, at the helm of this zombie operation,” Rubeo explains.

All this attention to detail was often horrifyingly revealed in giant sweeping shots, including a terrifying reveal of zombies climbing on top of each other to scale an “impregnable” wall. Often, Forster turned to these sweeping shots and eschewed the quick cuts and shaky frame.

“Certain movies lend themselves to a more frenetic camera and editorial style. In this one, we chose to have more stable camera moves. The idea of having thousands of zombies trying to get over a wall as helicopters shoot at them, I think those sequences have been extremely well executed,” Ian Bryce says.

In fact, in addition to traditional crane moves, actual choppers did shoot those zombies, albeit not with bullets.

“We did a lot of helicopter shots in Malta,” Bryce says. “Sometimes you just have to get in the helicopter to capture the scope of the set.”