I’ll be upfront: I’ve never read Max Brooks’ World War Z and I have no intention of reading it. Most zombie movies and books skip the apocalypse and jump right into the post-apocalypse. Why? Because slow-moving zombies—little more than shambling meat sacks with teeth—would never be able to bring down human civilization. I will never be able to swallow that premise, and thus, I have no intention of wasting my time reading a book devoted exclusively to that premise. Max Brooks could be the Cormac McCarthy of zombie fiction, and it wouldn’t change my opinion. That said, however, this complete bastardization of Max Brooks’ novel is actually watchable. Fans of the book will be disappointed, but casual movie goers should find plenty to like here.
Marc Forster’s World War Z follows ex-special forces operative Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) as he and his family attempt to survive the zombie apocalypse. This apocalypse kicks off quickly and earnestly as this zombie plague quickly turns its victims into packs of slavering speed freaks. The zombies here behave less like the shuffling ghouls popularized by George Romero and more like fast-moving insects operating under the direction of a single hive mind. These zombies have no intention of feasting on entrails or brains; they only operate to spread the plague. One bite of an unsuspecting victim and the monsters are heading on to the next uninfected target.
In an early action sequence set in Philadelphia, Lane attempts to evacuate his family from the city as sprinting ghouls mindlessly assault hoards of confused civilians. The zombies hurl themselves from the roofs of nearby buildings, smash their heads through the windshields of speeding automobiles, and fling themselves upon anyone slow enough to get within arm’s reach. We never see the undead communicate, but they appear to operate in harmony with each other. It’s an interesting approach to genre—one that I’m not sure has been attempted before. Also, it’s easy to imagine this zombie hoard taking any military on the planet down. No human organization on the planet benefits from the level of coordination the zombies share here.
Pretty soon Gerry Lane has his family safely shunted away on aircraft carrier, and he’s jetting around the planet looking for the origin of the plague. He travels take him from Russia to Israel to Wales. All the while, the plague relentlessly pursues him and every survivor he encounters. Survivors battle rampaging zombies in virtually empty military installations, in the crowded streets of a fortified Jerusalem, and, in one exciting sequence, in a fully occupied passenger plane.
World War Z suffers from its family-friendly, PG-13 rating. How does one tell a PG-13 story about festering, rotting mounds of flesh that exist only to gorge on living, screaming human beings? How does one delve into a notoriously violent subject matter and tell a great story while keeping the prudes at the MPAA happy? The simple answer: you can’t.
This year’s Warm Bodies attempted to bring zombie love to the teenage market with some limited success. The filmmakers there made it work by ditching many of the trappings of the genre, choosing instead to fashion a warm-and-fuzzy romantic comedy out of the material. Here, Marc Forster, who apparently graduated from the Paul Greengrass school of action directing, simply shakes the camera incessantly and keeps all attention diverted away from anything truly horrific.
Early sequences, wherein the Lane family witnesses the fall of major cities at the hands of slavering hoards of undead, are chaotic and incomprehensible. Director Marc Forster goes so completely out of his way to avoid showing anything gruesome, that it’s often impossible to tell what’s even happening on the screen. It’s only in the movie’s final two thirds that World War Z begins to find its footing. As Lane and the rest of his team begin to devise a solution to the zombie problem, the movie begins to rely more on tension building rather than mayhem. The threat of violence rather than violence itself drives the story. Only when World War Z settles down into a less violent, more intense groove does the safe rating no longer hinder the flick. The movie’s final act manages to be as tense as anything George Romero ever directed, gore or no gore.
There’s not much in the way of plot or character development here, but World War Z distracts with lightening fast-pacing that carries its protagonists from one vastly different location and situation to the next. Here, the zombie subgenre is given the James Bond treatment, and that’s enough to distinguish this flick from other, considerably less imaginative fare. World War Z is novel, and novelty is something the zombie movie has been sorely lacking in the past decade.