If there's one thing harder to kill than a horde of zombies, it's the unceasing horde of zombie movies, TV shows, books, and videogames. As recently reported by the U.S. Department of the Obvious, the undead continue enjoying their extended cultural moment. Unlike the mercifully fading vampire phenomenon, audiences keep responding to the tattered, groaning, living dead for reasons that go beyond any visual parallels to 9/11. Aside from just being cool, zombies are an unsettling reminder of our mortality and the lack of control we have over whether we live or die. They're also a handy allegorical device that has been used to represent unchecked consumerism, Cold War paranoia, anti-environmentalism, and class disparity.
For the Marc Forster-directed World War Z, certainly the grandest zombie enterprise ever, Paramount execs have another allegory in mind: they're hoping the zombies who mindlessly stampede towards former U.N. investigator Gerry Lane represent throngs of moviegoers who'll mindlessly stampede to their local multiplex to see Brad Pitt, the man portraying him. This is likely in the short run, as World War Z is a propulsive, absorbing, visually striking enactment of a worldwide zombie uprising. Its staying power is the bigger question, since the movie lacks character investment, has a lousy ending, and plays like a succession of CGI action sequences strung together. Still, it's surprising the film turned out this decent, considering its epically troubled birth.
Indeed, the problems faced by World War Z are so well documented that Paramount smartly embraced a recent Vanity Fair piece chronicling how it got into such a $200 million mess in the first place. By all accounts, one major issue was the film's lack of a satisfying third act, which resulted in scrapping millions of dollars worth of complicated action footage and essentially rewriting and reshooting the last twenty-odd minutes of the movie.
World War Z's new third act, which includes a creepy crawl down the corridors of a World Health Organization facility in Wales, is the film's most suspenseful sequence, even if it's too small-scale to work as an action movie finale. Another pressing issue, one that could not be solved, is that director Marc Forster and his army of A-list writers (Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, and Damon Lindelof) put more thought into the dead characters than the living ones.
Brad Pitt in World War Z: 'Standard-issue indestructible superman and apocalyptic tour guide'
Brad Pitt, who has never gotten top billing in a film like World War Z and would surely bring something interesting to the disaster hero archetype, is relegated to standard-issue indestructible superman and apocalyptic tour guide. His relationship with wife Karin (a quietly emotive Mireille Enos), which could have provided a much-needed emotional backbone, is a non-starter since they're separated throughout most of the movie, giving us no opportunity to learn or care about them.
If World War Z hewed closer to the Max Brooks source novel, it would probably look like Steven Soderbergh's compelling, unadorned Contagion. But that won't work during the high season of movie thrill rides, so Forster gets right to the action.
After a generic table-setting breakfast scene, Gerry, Karin, and their two daughters find themselves in the middle of a major fracas, as thousands of spastic, ravenous zombies overwhelm the streets of downtown Philadelphia. Stealing an abandoned RV, the Lanes hightail it to New Jersey and take refuge in an apartment complex until Gerry's former U.N. boss, Thierry (Fana Mokoena), can transport them to the safety of an aircraft carrier miles offshore. While on the ship, Gerry reluctantly agrees to travel the globe investigating the plague's origin after being told his family will be returned to shore if he doesn't cooperate.
These early scenes establish the speed and sheer number of undead and also unveil some visual go-to's developed by Marc Forster (of the dreadful Quantum of Solace) and DPs Robert Richardson (who started the project) and Ben Seresin (who finished it and received sole credit). The most breathtaking are the overhead shots, oftentimes from a helicopter's POV, showing thousands of zombies filling the streets like floodwater. They figure prominently in the movie's best section, when Gerry travels to Israel to investigate why the Israelis sensed the coming zombie invasion early enough to build a wall around Jerusalem. (Image: World War Z zombies try to climb Jerusalem wall.)
But since World War Z isn't very interested in exploring the effects of a zombie takeover on social or religious order, the Israeli scenes, enlivened by eye-level shots of refugees trying to enter the walled city, are all we've got to imagine what the average person would experience. The Jerusalem sequence also supplies Gerry with a key alley, an Israeli soldier named Segen (fierce, earthy Daniella Kertesz) who accompanies him on a harrowing flight to the WHO complex in Wales.
World War Z: A tale of two movies
Watching World War Z, one senses a disconnect between the more serious-minded disaster epic Brad Pitt and Marc Forster wanted to make and the movie they actually wound up with. The dialogue never panders or winks, but it's mostly investigatory chatter. The action is oftentimes thrilling, but the film's PG-13 rating prohibits the satisfaction of seeing any zombie gore. And scenes of Gerry cautiously sneaking around darkened hallways generate a good amount of tension, but only remind us, to give one example, that James Cameron did it better in Aliens.
All that puts more burden on Brad Pitt, one of the World War Z producers and the only recognizable name in its cast. Although Tom Cruise is still the current gold standard in action heroics, his performances can feel programmed. Pitt is a three-time Oscar nominee for acting who can project ease, masculinity, and vulnerability in genres ranging from westerns (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) to heist comedies (Ocean's Eleven-Thirteen) to sports dramas (Moneyball). Whether Gerry is flipping pancakes for his daughters, saving Karin from looters at a supermarket, or skulking around the South Korean military base that may harbor Patient Zero, Pitt is so watchable it would be churlish to question why the government's best hope for saving the world is some former employee.
World War Z movie vs. novel
If anyone has questions, it should be fans of Max Brooks' novel. They'll surely wonder why the source material was stripped of its political commentary and unique structure and turned into a conventionally-plotted action film. It's a fair question unless you're one of the companies that spent over $200 million making the movie, in which case you may ask why they didn't make some other zombie movie and leave World War Z alone. But those issues are best left to movie wonks and bean counters.
As long as Gerry keeps traveling the globe and delivering us to the next zombie onslaught, we're pretty happy. If the clues never really add up, and the ending is both abrupt and unsatisfying, that's a small price to pay for more zombies. So be prepared to overlook some glaringly obvious problems and enjoy the ride. As it turns out, zombies are so resilient they can even survive World War Z.
World War Z (2013). Dir.: Marc Forster. Scr.: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, and Damon Lindelof, from a “story” by Carnahan and J. Michael Straczynski, based on Max Brooks' book. Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Ludi Boeken, Matthew Fox, Fana Mokoena, David Morse, Elyes Gabel, Pierfrancesco Favino, Peter Capaldi, Ruth Negga, Moritz Bleibtreu, Michiel Huisman, Abigail Hargrove, Fabrizio Zacharee Guido.
Brad Pitt in World War Z photo: Paramount Pictures.
World War Z zombies photo: Paramount Pictures.