War on Terror in I am Legend and World War Z

By Ayden Bae

2003 and 2004 saw a spike in the production of zombie films with 12 and 20 flicks released respectively. This is in contrast to the mere 17 zombie films produced from 2000 to 2002 with six in 2000; seven in 2001and four in 2002. From 2003 onwards, the number of zombie films has multiplied like bite victims in a crowded subway car. Assuming that it takes between one and three years on average to make a film, the horde of zombie films started production around 2001 and 2002, multiplying each year after. A surge in the number of zombie films starting from 2001 can be clearly attributed to the well-known catastrophic event in America: the 9/11 incident. These zombie films are made to represent reality and the zombies are often seen as foreign entities which attack people unreasonably. We should acknowledge that there has always been a comparison of zombies to terrorists even before 9/11, dealing with the anxiety of terror (Birkenstein, 2010, p.8). The tremendous impact of 9/11 inaugurated this ongoing anxiety, heightening it, making zombies a metaphor for the fear of war against terror. This raises the issue of how the fear of war on terror could be tackled and understood in the context of America’s aggressive action abroad and domestically in apocalyptic zombie films when the trauma of 9/11 incident lingers.

In order to do so, this essay aims to identify and contrast the different portrayals of zombies and how they are represented as terrorists in two viral apocalypse texts, I am Legend and World War Z, directed by Francis Lawrence and Marc Foster respectively. As I am Legend is the first post-apocalyptic film with New York as the background after 9/11, studying the film is a credible way of understanding how Americans view terrorist attacks through the close analysis of zombies and subsequently how they react to the war on terror. World War Z portrays how America reacts to this viral zombie outbreak on a global scale. Despite these two texts being similar in showing the viral zombie outbreak, the settings of the films and different reactions towards the zombies could indicate how America has a different stance on the war on terrorism in and out of the US.

Through a close analysis of the two texts, this paper argues that while the general depiction of the zombies is regarded as the terrorists who cause a detrimental impact on society spearheading the war on terror, there have been subtle differences in America interpreting war on terrorism in the two texts. While World War Z portrays America adopting a more of extreme and radicalised method in combating terrorism internationally, I am Legend focuses on the domestic and ambivalent view on it.

I am Legend tells the lonely story of Robert Neville in New York, the last survivor of a deadly virus which has either killed or mutated a majority of the humans into zombies. He experiments to find the cure and also fights the zombies at the same time. Interestingly, the movie has two separate endings. One ends with the mutants launching a massive blowout on Neville’s house. Knowing that he is outnumbered, he decides to kill himself with the zombies by exploding his grenade to save Anna and Ethan (who are discovered as survivors at later part of the film), as well as the discovered cure. On the contrary, there is also a happier ending where the three survivors leave New York together. The two different endings suggest multiple views on dealing with terrorism, which will be explained in the later part of the article. World War Z shows the world collapse of society due to the unknown deadly zombie virus and depicts the journey of Gerry Lane, traveling worldwide in a desperate attempt to find a cure for the disease. The film shows how people retaliate against the zombies in a detailed way. While both films emphasise on how the main protagonist and the society deal with the zombie attack, the portrayals of them differ, as will be explored.

Zombies in both films make an excellent metaphor for terrorists as they are incredibly fast moving and dangerous, resulting in the widespread destruction that should be combatted. Zombies mirror terrorists or suicide bombers: they are a monstrous threat, with no thought of self-preservation, mindlessly throwing themselves and destroying everything in their path. Evidently, the scene in Jerusalem in World War Z where zombies swarm and stack upon each other to cross the wall to infect everyone. Zombies in the movies are portrayed as aggressive entities, posing a great threat to mankind. Zombies in I am Legend– referred to as the mutants or the “DarkSeekers” by Neville, are also seen as terrorists but more explicitly compared to World War Z. Other than the fact that these zombies are of a great threat to Neville, the non- negotiable and violent monsters who have almost no trace of humanity have been often considered as symbolic representations due to the heavy reference to “Ground Zero” throughout the film. New York is where Neville loses his war with the virus and zombies. It is also where he loses his family and abandons everything when the streets are infected. Neville’s story of his lost homeland and his efforts to recover it reverberates with the post 9/11 American phenomenon of homeland security. His efforts to keep the zombies away by deploying various weapon traps and deterrence methods mirror the effort by America to keep the terrorists at bay. 

Ground Zero Scene in I am Legend

I Am Legend denotes the fear of war on terror through mirroring the attack on Neville as the attack on the domestic sphere of America while the fear on the war on terror in World War Z is generated on a larger, international scale. Neville spends his time on the street during the day but when the night comes, the zombies occupy the same street where Neville spends his day, with the chance of attacking Neville at any moment. This suggests that America is always vulnerable to attack even at home. The background details of various scenes further illustrate the point. We can often see Neville doing house chores with his apron on which symbolises the domestic household of America. Also, Neville spends his pastime watching DVDs and playing golf, Americans’ typical and most liked hobbies. Hence, the attack on Neville can, therefore, be interpreted as a direct detrimental impact on the domestic aspects of America. Neville sharpens his military equipment and trains himself on a treadmill at his same house to be always prepared for the attack. Hence, the film shows that America is having the war on terror at her own home ground and if the military and deterrent actions were not implemented, America will be subjected to attack, heightening the fear of war of terror.

Neville in apron at his home

On the contrary, the zombie attacks featured in World War Z are of a larger scale, depicting the fear of the war on terror on an international level. The spread of zombies is at an extremely accelerated pace. Unlike the mutants in I am Legend, the attack of the zombiesis not restricted to a specific location but branches out to different parts of the world. This is evidently seen in the wall scene in Israel, where zombies pile themselves upon each other to infect people inside Jerusalem. This shows how zombies, much like terrorists, are not restricted by geographical boundaries. In addition, the zombie attack scene in the aircraft suggests that the virus is airborne. This illustrates that the zombies are a reflection of the terror groups of today who try to plan their bombing mission in various parts of the world and not in a certain fixed location. Also, it must be noted that the zombies only attack the healthy ones not the sick and elderly. This is clearly evident throughout the film where zombies attack Gerry regardless of where he is at the start but as Gerry injects himself with the disease later, zombies turn away from him. It is as if zombies know that Gerry is one of them, do not see the necessity to attack him. This shows zombies want to create a whole population of their species. This is similar to the intention of terrorist groups who have the aim of conquering the world with the establishment of their own vision of the state, prepared to strike any places where their influence are not seen. For example, there are Al-Qaeda and ISIS whose main purpose is to spread their Islamic influence all over the world through the use of violent means. They want to establish an Islamic-ruled state worldwide, similar to how zombie attacks are large-scale and international and never-ending till their aims are achieved.

Gerry confronting the zombie

There have been subtle differences in the portrayal of retaliation of zombies in the two texts. Subtly but critically, there was clearer segregation between mankind and zombies in World War Z compared to the zombies in I am Legend. Heavy use of military equipment portrayed in World War Z to combat the zombies mirror America’s aggressive stance towards the terrorists, signalling that America is always prepared and relentless in wiping out the terrorists. The clear boundary is set between the zombies and humans and this is reflected in wall scene in Israel where Israel had already built awall to separate the zombies from the survivors and military helicopters are deployed to mass kill the zombies. Also, the soldiers in the film refer to the zombies as ‘monsters’ which must be wiped out as they are different from them. This is similar to reaction George W. Bush after 9/11. He mentions “We’re going to get the b******s. We are at war” and ” Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated”. (Lusher, 2016). This amplifies the point that the zombies in World War Z are treated as a foreign entities like terrorists and America shows no hesitation in using violent means to stop them, illustrating her aggressive stance towards the war on terror.

Wall In Israel

Unlike World War, I am Legend portrays America having an ambivalent stance towards the terrorists due to Neville’s attitude towards the zombies in the two different endings. Theatrical ending holds a rather similar stance on zombies compared to World War Z where zombies and humans are not interactive and of totally different species and humans react to it by thwarting them violently. Neville’s sacrifice for the future of humanity with his action of throwing himself to the zombies with the unpinned grenade suggests that the war between the zombies and humans is continuous until either party is annihilated. The scene symptomatically reveals the constant tension between the terrorists and America, suggesting both America and the terrorists have the aim of thwarting each other.

The original ending of the film breaks down the binary between “us” and “them”. While it would be erroneous to claim that Neville does not treat the mutants as enemies with various scenes showing how Neville fights against the zombies with his own military weapons, this version of the film highlights the desire to save the infected. This is clearly seen in the scene where the mutants charge into Neville’s house. Knowing that he is outnumbered, Neville brings up a new approach by saying: ” I can save you. I can help you. You’re sick… I can fix this. I can save everybody”. Unlike the theatrical, this original ending shows that the segregation between the mutants and the humans is blurred. Neville tries to convince the mutants, acknowledging that they are like him, offering his help. Instead of killing Neville, the alpha male picks up the female zombie whom Neville has done numerous experiments on and leaves the place. This proves that the mutants are like one of us, who can feel emotions. Neville then realizes he is the one treating the mutants as enemies and he has been a monster all along, regretting his past actions. This ending seems to criticise America’s harsh method of dealing with the war on terror, giving new perspectives on the non-violent ways to deal and even negotiate with the terrorists. Hence, the very fact that there are two vastly different endings illustrates ambivalent stance of America where she draws the segregation between her and the terrorists with the aim of thwarting them on one hand but it also adopts alternative non-violent and diplomatic method of dealing the war against terror.

In summary, it is obvious that the zombies featured in both texts are reflective of terrorists and America’s ongoing war against terror. However, the fear and stance adopted regarding the war on terror are vastly different. While World War Z deals with the war on terror as a conventional war where America has the definite aim of defeating the terrorists in a large scale, I am Legend depicts the fear of war on terror on a relatively smaller scale and adopts an ambivalent stance towards it. With closer examination of other zombie movies, it will offer other insights into America’s fight against terror.



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Forster, M. (Director). (2013). World War Z [Motion picture]. Hollywood: Paramount Pictures.

Knowlton, B. & International Herald Tribune. (2001, September 19). Terror in America / ‘We’re going to smoke them out’: President airs his anger. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/19/news/terror-in-america-were-going-to-smoke-them-out-president-airs-his-anger.html

Lawrence, F. (Director). (2007). I am Legend [Motion picture]. Burbank: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Lusher, A. (2016, September 10). 9/11 anniversary: Handwritten notes reveal how George W Bush reacted on September 9/11. Independent. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/911-anniversary-twin-towers-george-bush-us-war-on-terror-september-11-how-george-w-bush-reacted-to-a7235641.html