World War Z is something of an anomaly. For starters, it’s a zombie movie rated PG-13, which means no blood, gore or foul language. Secondly, it stars Brad Pitt, from the top of the A-list. Then, it’s directed by Mark Forster, known for dramas like Monster’s Ball, the heartbreaking Finding Neverland, the offbeat comedy Stranger Than Fiction, and the worst James Bond movie of recent memory (Quantum of Solace). It’s extremely loosely based on the otherwise unfilmable book by Max Brooks (son of film-comedy genius Mel Brooks), and had more behind-the-scenes troubles than I could even relate here, involving reshoots, rewrites, and an ever-inflating budget.
All of that is superficial, however, because where World War Z really stands out is its scope. Most zombie movies, from Dawn of the Dead to Shaun of the Dead and with every Walking Dead in between tends to focus on a small group of survivors struggling to make it in a world overrun by zombies. That perspective allows for the maximum in both scares and human drama, using zombies as simply a vehicle for the human survival story. World War Z jettisons all of that, giving us the first true zombie epic, something which spans the globe and feels more like a political thriller than a horror film.
World War Z starts off conventionally enough. Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), his wife and his two daughters are driving into Philadelphia when the city is overrun by zombies. The zombies are of the 28 Days Later variety, running and leaping at full speed. Gerry watches as a man is bitten and within a matter of seconds turns into a zombie and joins the mayhem. The stakes are set pretty quickly, and the world is soon overrun with these fast-moving, fast-spawning creatures. Gerry and his family escape Philadelphia and get a call from Gerry’s former boss, who promises to extract Gerry as soon as he can.
While this all sounds like a conventional setup, what in fact happens is that Gerry and family are rescued a day later, taken to safety aboard an aircraft carrier amidst a fleet of refugee military ships. You see, Gerry used to work for the UN as an investigator, and the UN wants him to work with a scientist to discover a cure. So instead of having to fight for survival, Gerry sets off on a globetrotting political mission, willfully heading back into danger in order to be useful enough to guarantee his family a spot of safety.
His trek takes him to South Korea, where the rumor is that North Korea eliminated the threat by forcibly removing the teeth of everyone within their borders (no teeth means no bites). He’s then on to Jerusalem, where the Israeli government has constructed a massive wall in record time to keep the zombies at bay, all while accepting any and all refugees. There could be some interesting political points to be made, about the way different governments react to this sort of crisis (and in fact, the rumor is that a large chunk of the political commentary was eliminated with reshoots, including a stop in Moscow), but any coherent message is set aside in favor of massive attack sequences.
Here, in fact, is World War Z’s biggest strength, in that it gives us some truly impressively staged images. In Jerusalem, the zombies force themselves at the wall in such numbers that they create a pile of bodies high enough to breach the defenses. While they’re constantly seen leaping after helicopters in an acrobatically careless way. It’s all on a scale that no other zombie film can approach, though despite the ballooning budget the effects feel a generation behind the times. The scale, though, means that there is almost nothing in the way of character development. Gerry is entertaining enough, simply by virtue of being played by Brad Pitt, but he’s not given much to do on an acting level. His wife is given even less, and the only character who I found myself even remotely interested in is an Israeli soldier played by Daniella Kertesz. By focusing the film on the plight of the world, it loses its humanity.
Also working against the film are the zombies. While the way they swarm like ants on cocaine is an impressive sight (they remind me of the “big damn ants” from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), on an individual level they’re decidedly more… let’s go with “quirky.” The actors playing zombies really ham it up (and it’s so consistent that it has to be a directorial choice by Marc Forster), clicking their teeth and leering before they charge. I almost expected them to start licking their lips and rubbing their hands together with glee. One scene near the end that was supposed to be tense was received in a different way in my theater, with every mannerism of the waiting zombie met with waves of laughter.
The film also has its share of implausibilities. Zombie movies always felt like the most believable horror movies, even at their most ridiculous. I could almost believe Shaun and company heading down to the pub to hole up and drink some beers, all while taking impromptu acting lessons in order to blend in with the monsters and debating which records are bad enough to throw as weapons. World War Z, however, in an effort to up the action quotient, becomes more than a bit ridiculous. One miraculous ending to an airplane attack sequence will surely have you rolling your eyes. It makes the Resident Evil films look good, merely because they have an internal consistency.
Despite some neat visuals, World War Z just never felt particularly interesting. It’s such a watered down version of a political thriller that any message is lost, the characters are uninteresting and generally lost in the scope, the scares are mild and predictable and the whole thing is a sanitized PG-13. Nothing was particularly bad about it, but nothing stood out in any positive way either. And while I may have learned a few things not to do in the zombie novel I’m writing, it was otherwise forgettable.