"World War Z" and the Billion-Dollar Business of Zombies

Viacom needs to send a fruit basket to Brad Pitt and his production company, Plan B Entertainment. Viacom's Paramount studio was in desperate need of a big summer hit, and Pitt's zombie romp, World War Z, is delivering in spades.

World War Z is riding a global zombie trend right now, and it's a powerful one. Will the trend stay warm-blooded long enough to fuel a series of Z sequels, or is the fad already as dead as its anti-heroes? Let's think about it together.

The numbers around this title are amazing. World War Z delivered a $66 million domestic opening weekend, is competing for eyeballs and dollars with a strong second weekend, is likely to top $200 million in global box office receipts by Monday, and should land north of $300 million globally when all is said and done. That is, before reaping further rewards from TV and online syndication, lunch boxes, the usual extras.

The first zombie encountered in George Romero's 1968 genre classic, Night of the Living Dead. His brood is still hunting for brains and box-office dollars. They just have more impressive makeup.

To no one's surprise, Pitt and Viacom are already looking at sequels. The film was meant to kick off a trilogy before the ending was drastically changed. Given that it's based on the rich world of the best-seller book of the same name, and really didn't tap anything but the name from the book in the first installment, there's plenty of material to explore.

In fact, it would be ridiculous not to go down that road. The zombie genre is littered with long strings of sequels and remakes -- and World War Z is already one of the biggest box office hits in zombie history, just two weeks into the release. Check out the top six zombie movies of all time in terms of American ticket sales:


Opening Weekend

Final Domestic Gross

Final Global Gross

Production Budget

Hotel Transylvania





World War Z***










Warm Bodies





Resident Evil: Afterlife





Evil Dead (2013)***





Data from Box Office Mojo and Deadline Hollywood Daily. All figures in millions of U.S. dollars.
*Estimates for first 2 weeks.
**Author's estimated final tally.
*** Still in theaters.

That's right -- World War Z is already the second-biggest money maker among zombie movies in Hollywood history. Hotel Transylvania had the advantage of being an animated kids' movie with a humble PG rating.

The list above looks like a motley collection. You've got cartoons and comedies, pulse-pounding action and hardcore horror. Some are well made, others an empty collection of special effects without heart. Sony is a big winner in the zombie space, having placed four titles on this top-six list, but Paramount and Lionsgate are riding the wave too. For Paramount/Viacom, World War Z could kick-start a franchise that makes the first movie's big budget worth its salt. For Summit/Lionsgate, zombies seem like a natural fit after the fantastic success of its vampire romance franchise, the Twilight saga.

But the films above have one very important thing in common, apart from being very successful zombie titles. They were all produced in the past four years.

Add in the award-winning success of AMC Networks' The Walking Dead cable TV show, and you have a full-blown cultural trend on your hands. It's been around for at least four years and is still producing bigger and bigger winners. That's a good sign for its lasting power.

I think it's fair to use The Walking Dead as a bellwether for the overall zombie zeitgeist. Right now, the series is as hot as ever. The Season 3 finale broke all-time cable show records with a fantastic 15.2 million viewers. And it wasn't a single episode of fleeting glory: That third season was the first cable show in television history to beat the average viewership of every other show, including the cable-free networks ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox.

So if the zombie fad is dead, it sure doesn't act like it yet. And who's to say that it will fall down after a short run? Look at Walt Disney's Marvel milking the superhero genre ever since the 2002 Spider-Man tentpole (coincidentally directed by horror legend Sam Raimi), which started a decade-long trend of superhuman heroes making billion-dollar movies. A positive template to follow, for sure.

And keep in mind that showrunners and studios are treating zombies as if they have legs (and teeth). World War Z might start a franchise. Rumor has it that the Evil Dead reboot could spawn a trilogy of its own, giving Sony access to an intentionally low-budget franchise with big-ticket revenue magnetism. Indie producers are shopping around a plethora of zombie ideas, sometimes with dramatic twists on the basic "living dead" premise.

In short, I think it's safe to say that zombies are here to stay for a while. Certainly long enough to let Viacom spawn a series of blockbuster World War Z sequels while Sony delves even deeper into the dark realms. Again, keep a close eye on The Walking Dead to keep your finger on this trend's pulse.

But be careful. I don't trust the shifty-eyed corpse in the corner. He looks hungry.

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The article "World War Z" and the Billion-Dollar Business of Zombies originally appeared on Fool.com.

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