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World War Z and the Art of Breaking Down

If there’s one thing that doesn’t mean much in World War Z, it’s looking presentable. This is costume at its worst, so to speak. Clothes that have been thrown through panes of glass or off the top of buildings, torn, stained and saturated with blood. This is the art of breaking down.

Breaking down, distressing, aging, these basically achieve the same result – they make clothes seem more believably lived in, or in the case of World War Z’s zombie hoards, believably dead in. Clothes in movies are broken down by many tried and tested methods. Professional ‘agers’ chisel with files and sandpaper, unpick seams, wash over and over, even burn and bleach. Importantly, these costumes appear used yet don’t fall apart when an actor wears them. It’s like cheese that has gone mouldy; it may look unappetising, but you can still eat it.

World War Z_Zombie hoard_image credit Paramount Pictures

The zombie/infected masses in World War Z. In this instance the zombies were predominantly computer generated (CGI). Costume designer Mayes C. Rubeo has considerable experience with CGI having worked on Avatar (2009) and John Carter (2012).

Mayes C. Rubeo had to costume two sets of cast for World War Z, zombies and survivors. The zombies may seem like faceless drones scrambling around in rags, but until they turned they were regular people. They had jobs, they wore uniforms, they were slobby, they were fashionable – they had lives. Obviously Rubeo could not dream up a backstory for each and every zombie, yet she did take into account their setting. Where are they? How long have they been there?

Take walled off Israel, protected, but one of the first places to be infected. We see a close up of one particular zombie outside the wall wearing barely held together scraps. She has probably been in the streets foraging for days. Conversely the scientist zombie faced by UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) at the WHO laboratory has only been wandering indoors. We can see dirt and tears on his lab coat, likely caused by flinging himself through glass, but overall he is not as ragged or filthy as the woman in Israel; this reflects him being in a more controlled environment.

World War Z_Brad Pitt top scarf_image credit Paramount Pictures

Brad Pitt as United Nations investigator Jerry Lane wearing a shemagh scarf. The shemagh is often seen in dusty, arid countries because it can be easily wrapped around the face and head like a mask.

Also you may have noticed the scientist’s check shirt under his coat, which in costume terms is society’s great leveller. Several of the zombies wear check shirts to convey an everyman quality. Practically everyone such a shirt. And these zombies could be anybody; they could be you or me. Rubeo would have needed multiples of costumes, especially for close-ups and those who change on-screen. There would have been stunt copies, before copies, after copies, and in the case of star names that may or may not become infected, ‘hero’ copies.

Dressing the survivors in World War Z meant a similar costume process for Rubeo, although with additional changes and less distressing. Gerry mainly wears dark blue. It’s a shrewd choice for the film, not as divisive as red or yellow, not as camouflaging as green (particularly against military uniforms). Moreover it’s not often found in the animal kingdom so takes on meaning as a human colour. Gerry starts out in a dark blue zipper with blue v-neck sweater, before adding a utility vest and shemagh for his trip to South Korea. He then swaps the sweater for a blue shirt with patch pockets giving off a militaristic air. Finally he wears an inky blue cardigan and silver blue winter coat. Incidentally, the last act of World War Z was re-written and re-shot but because of the entirely new characters introduced this would not have affected costume.

World War Z_Zombie stunts_image credit Paramount Pictures

In production still of zombies attacking with CGI background yet to be added. Zombie costumes need to be broken down more than most. Blood, dirt, tears – they must reflect the before and after life of the wearer.

Again Rubeo considers backstory and setting with the main survivors, as their clothes are ravaged from fighting zombies. There are noticeable differences between them, such as Gerry’s wife Jane (Mirelle Enos) whose clothes are bloodied and torn, and Gerry’s colleague at the UN, Thierry (Fana Mokoena) whose suit is merely sweaty and unkempt. Most of the survivors are not able to change clothes so what they wore had to be functional in the story and comfortable for the actor. Gerry and others also add makeshift protective elements to their bodies, such as magazines wrapped around arms and legs held on with masking tape to function like bite sleeves worn by dog trainers.

As the World War Z franchise takes off and more films are made, zombie costumes will distress and break down further, desolated by time and weather. Zombies are the infected homeless searching for a host. Their clothes, like their bodies, will eventually decay and disintegrate.

World War Z is currently on general release.

© 2013 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.