13 Questions Left Unanswered by ‘World War Z’

By  · Published on June 22nd, 2013

Spoilers Ahead: This article contains advanced talking points for Marc Forster’s World War Z. We recommend reading it after you see the film.

I know. It’s pretty futile starting up a list of unanswered questions regarding a popcorn flick about vaguely defined zombies co-written by Damon Lindelof. But just because something is futile doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. I haven’t read the original book by Max Brooks, which apparently doesn’t matter given how little the movie resembles the text. I also haven’t followed every little piece of the production, but that shouldn’t matter either since the movie on screen should stand alone. However, where there is some relevance to explaining something on screen by the issues of the rewrites and reshoots and such, so I do try to mention it if I’m aware of it.

Speaking of the infamous production problems, they do tend to factor into narrative flaws and holes and confusion like those I raise below. Additionally the expectation that the story of World War Z will continue in sequels means the filmmakers might be choosing to flesh out some stuff later on. And of course, as usual, some of the questions are not answerable at all because they’re more criticisms in the form of a hypothetical query or simply disagreements with how the movie was plotted or how the characters thought or acted. All in all, let these talking points first and foremost serve as a means to discuss the movie in full without concern for spoilers.

What actually caused the zombie outbreak?

There’s not really an explanation. There’s no mention of a probe returning from Venus with extraterrestrial contaminants, no accidentally leaked biological weapon or toxic chemicals, no voodoo magic. In the beginning of the film, news reports call the outbreak a form of rabies. Later the infected are just called zombies, in a sort of knowing nod to a pop culture tradition that seems to exist in this onscreen world. From what I’ve read, the closest thing to a source was initially mentioned in the script as having been based in China, but the line was eliminated in hopes of appealing to the country’s distribution censors (it seems not to have mattered anyway). So, I just assume the outbreak originated with a diseased pig in a kitchen in Macau, a la Contagion. As in the case of that film, the world never figures out the true cause (even if the audience is let in there at least), which is often the case in real life. Nobody knows for sure who Patient Zero was for many plagues and viruses nor the definite source of other epidemics. And as it so happens in the movie, it doesn’t really end up mattering what caused the outbreak.

What’s the point of the South Korea mission if the source isn’t important?

Given the history of epidemics and the difficulty of their origin being pinpointed, this is a very good question. At the point in which the world was ravaged by this zombie apocalypse, the real agenda should have been figuring out how the remaining humans could survive or otherwise avoid becoming infected. That partly means looking for a vaccine or cure, which is what the scientists at the World Health Organization were doing, and as with many diseases they could investigate or experiment just fine without knowing the origin. Perhaps more knowledge of what they were dealing with might have helped, but it doesn’t seem necessary. You just don’t need to find a Patient Zero to develop a vaccine. If anything the trip assigned to Gerry (Brad Pitt) to find out the source comes off as just the U.N.’s desire to know. Just because. It reminded me of the crew in Prometheus attempting to find out the origin of man just to find out. Other than that, the investigation structure provides for good storytelling.


What is the real significance of David Morse’s ex-CIA character?

Morse has a disappointingly small part in the film, but he’s far from unmemorable. But is he necessary? His nutty, traitorous CIA agent does provide Gerry with the information about Israel’s quarantined status in addition to less relevant details of North Korea’s solution for avoiding zombies by knocking out everyone’s teeth. Never mind the confusing circumstances of his gun-running and imprisonment and how he knows so much about Jerusalem being the best place for the investigation to go next, but couldn’t someone else have supplied this exposition? Why hasn’t the U.N. been in communication with Israel or otherwise aware of the situation there? The only real explanation for Morse’s appearance here is obviously service to us diehard 12 Monkeys fans who love the idea of seeing Jeffrey Goines talking with Dr. Peters about the origins of an apocalyptic outbreak. Even Morse’s tooth removal bit feels like a nod to the “crazy dentist” extraction from Terry Gilliam’s 1996 film. If only there was a Bruce Willis cameo among those soldiers.

Why don’t the soldiers in South Korea accompany Gerry to the safe haven of Jerusalem?

After Gerry learns that Israel has protected itself from the zombies and has become a walled-in quarantined area, it would make sense for him to invite everyone held up at the base in South Korea to join him on the giant plane and head to safety. I think he even does ask James Badge Dale’s character, who declines. Why? In case any other investigators come looking for answers they don’t even really have? Because it’s their duty to hold their fort even though it’s in the middle of a zombie-filled zone? There’s a lot of questions left over about that whole sequence, including why the soldier with the bum leg who had already experienced his miracle of being undesirable by the zombies wasn’t the one sent out to handle the most dangerous tasks of fueling the plane and helping Gerry get away.

World War Z Movie

Why wasn’t there better security on the walls of Jerusalem?

For many days Israel remained a safe place, if only because of the huge security system of defensive walls already built on the border of the Gaza Strip. Political relevance notwithstanding, this was a clever aspect of the film. Unfortunately and ironically, celebratory chanting (was it Israelis and Palestinians united peacefully in song that was the downfall?) drew the attention of too many zombies outside the wall. Not that the speaker feedback could have been the loudest noise coming from the city given all the activity at the airport and from the helicopters in the sky and from the huge crowds in general. But even as sudden and quick as the zombie horde was able to pile against the wall and thereby breach the city, how did Israel’s leaders not foresee the chances of such an invasion? They had the helicopters monitoring the border, which didn’t help at all, but they should have had other forms of security watches and monitoring and defenses set up atop the walls. I saw someone mention somewhere that the walls should have been built with an outward extension to make it harder to climb over. My idea would have been to include a wall of wire at the peak of the structure, or maybe a moat. I know, it’s easier to imagine such plans after you’ve seen what was in place not work.

How did Gerry know he’d survive the plane crash?

One of the recurring ideas in the movie is that Gerry is a risk taker. For instance, after he amputates the arm of Segen (Daniella Kertesz), she asks how he knew it would work. He says he didn’t. Later on, he takes a very big risk in injecting himself with a terminal disease in the hopes it would prove to be the way to fight the zombies. Fortunately he is a very lucky man, because while those two situations were at least logically motivated, his plan to rid the plane he’s on of zombies with a grenade was anything but reasonable. Let’s pretend that the airline’s seats were definitely secure enough that he and Segen wouldn’t be sucked out of the explosion-generated hole along with the infected passengers. How could he have believed that at least he would survive the subsequent crash? Maybe he just didn’t care anymore because he thought his family was sent out to die? Wouldn’t the best plan have been to talk his and Segen’s way into the secure cockpit until they could land? He’d already generated a relationship and trust with the pilots, who he clearly didn’t worry about when he sabotaged the flight.

Why did Gerry’s family have to leave the U.N. ship so immediately?

It was made clear that if Gerry didn’t go on his mission that he and his family had no place on the U.N. ship. But he did go on the mission, risking his life for the future of humanity and the second it was thought that he failed – albeit as a fallen hero – his family was thrown off the boat. Of course, the Nova Scotia safe zone did end up looking pretty secure and probably even more comfortable, but still that was seriously a dick move on the part of the people in charge. Especially so quickly and without certainty of Gerry’s fate. A related question is this: why did the little boy that accompanied Gerry’s family get to stay on the ship? He wasn’t a part of the family unless they chose to adopt him in a rushed decision amidst all the chaos. I can understand them caring about him, but as far as the U.N. officials were concerned he definitely didn’t deserve a bed on the boat the same as Gerry’s real kids did.

Why does Gerry’s daughter have asthma?

Technically, because of a combination of medical circumstances that led to her having respiratory problems. But that’s not what I mean. Things like asthma aren’t scripted unless they have some narrative purpose. That’s just how the movies work, and while a writer might want to add something like a specific condition in for character development they usually won’t because in the context of a film it throws the audience off rather than maintains any kind of natural reality or whatever the intention. As is, the daughter’s asthma plays like a red herring or even something that was supposed to be more significant, a piece of the investigative puzzle that would come back later. In the story it only serves as a reason for the family to stop at a supermarket, though they could have just gone there anyway to get water, food, flares and any other supplies. Especially because the foundation of the movie deals with viruses and the like, it’s hard not to make a connection with a character’s medical condition, yet there’s nothing to our logical presumptions of foreshadowing.

Why is Matthew Fox only an extra in the film?

Maybe spotted Fox for the literally few seconds he was onscreen or maybe you only saw his name in the credits and got confused about how you missed his role. He’s there, all right, as a “parajumper” aboard the helicopter that rescues Gerry’s family (and I think he was also there when they were booted, but maybe not). Did his part get cut drastically when the rewrites and reshoots happened? Was he to figure prominently in the original climactic battle, for instance? I can’t find much on what the deal is with his appearance being so minor he can’t even be called more than an extra in the film, but I’ve seen unsourced claim that Fox believes his character was only supposed to be introduced in World War Z and would factor heavily in the sequel. Maybe World War Z Part 2 could focus on that character’s part in the globally expansive story? It would be neat if the sequels told other people’s stories that happened simultaneous to or independent of Gerry’s.

Why would the zombie virus spare terminal humans?

Here’s my dumb guy question, as in I really naively don’t get why the zombies avoid attacking humans with a terminal illness. Story-wise, sure, it sounds good. But if a zombie did bite, say, someone with cancer, what would the issue be? Would the newly turned zombie die of cancer? Would the attacking zombie get cancer? That doesn’t sound right. And aren’t the humans who are infected with “zombism” or whatever their actual condition also now terminally ill if not actually dead to a degree? Does the zombie virus pass on terminal people for the same reason zombies don’t attack other zombies? I guess that’s probably the answer, but it still seems weird.

What is the disease used as the camouflage vaccine in the end?

This is my I apparently didn’t pay enough attention during the quick expositional conclusion question. And I can’t seem to find the answer anywhere else on the web yet, so hopefully someone can clarify. I thought I heard them say meningitis, but as far as my understanding that wouldn’t be the best thing to give yourself. For the solution to work, it’d have to be a terminal disease that we have a cure for, because otherwise what would the point be if we’re just camouflaging ourselves from death with a different kind of death, even if a more prolonged cause? A colleague said he thought the vaccine drop-delivered to different areas in the final montage was some sort of poxvirus. That also sounds too dangerous. Are there really any technically “terminal” and well-contained diseases that are curable and not just treatable that fit or did they actually not specify in the film because it was too hard to come up with a perfect candidate?

What was that about a major battle in Russia?

Also in the montage in the end there’s a briefly mentioned and shown battle in Russia that sounds and appears to have been quite substantial. Originally it was actually the climactic sequence of the film. For more on that, head to our previous post on differences between the initial version of the film and the reshot version. And for even more details, check out Peter Hall’s lengthy post at Movies.com on the battle and rest of the original ending as it was written in the earlier shooting script (the greater capacity of Fox’s role is also divulged).

When Gerry says “this isn’t the end” at the end, does he mean the zombie apocalypse or his revenge against the U.N.?

The way World War Z ends, with Gerry discovering a way to defeat the zombies and then the swift happy ending montage and scene reuniting the family in Nova Scotia, everything seems pretty nicely tied up. At least more so than most zombie apocalypse movies end. That means it’s okay if they never make a sequel, but there’s enough left open that there’s plenty of room to continue. That’s even without Gerry directly telling us in narration that, “This isn’t the end. Not even close.” I’m sure he means the war against the zombies, but part of me wants to think he means his beef with the U.N. officials who risked the safety of his family after he risked his life to save the world for them. Last year when Marc Forster and Paramount announced plans to turn World War Z into a trilogy, the Jason Bourne series was alluded to as inspiration. I can’t help but wish Gerry’s character does go full Bourne and goes after his former bosses as Bourne eventually did. The answer to this question is obvious: he means the zombie apocalypse. But that doesn’t make it the proper answer.

Related Topics:

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.