Zombie movies are so many light-years away from everything I care about that I faced World War Z with the kind of dread usually reserved for colonoscopies and root canals. But I am pleased to tell you that as zombie flicks go, this one goes down with fewer laughs and more artistry than most. The star is Brad Pitt, who also produced it, so high expectations are justified. He’s an actor with intelligence, skill, craft, integrity and a real feel for how motion pictures should look and move. So to say that World War Z has both brains and action is putting it mildly. It has serious flaws, too. But they have more to do with the impossible task of morphing Max Brooks’s classic but episodic futuristic novel into a coherent narrative that retains the book’s literary style than they do with sustaining interest for nearly two hours in a zombie epic that gets critical respect and also makes money. The good news is that it succeeds on almost every level.
An apocalyptic thriller, it’s a cross between arty pandemic warnings like Steven Soderbergh’s tedious, talky Contagion and a George Romero creature feature. As in Night of the Living Dead, the world is again overrun by wandering herds of the maggot-infested, glassy-eyed undead, but the horror clocks in slowly, interrupting the happy morning ritual of blueberry pancakes in the Philadelphia home of retired U.N. investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), his wife Karin (an excellent Mireille Enos) and their two daughters. Sifted into the morning news shows, between clips of atmospheric changes and eco-terrorist threats of martial law, the anchormen report disturbing warnings about a virus that is turning people into zombies in 12 countries. Outside, in typical morning gridlock, the Lanes meet panic head-on as cars explode and the entire population of Pennsylvania is running through the streets and crowding bridges, looking for exits, while monsters infected with a rabies virus smash their heads through windshields. The best way to tell a horror story with elements of hysteria is to do it in bursts of interconnected, fast-moving action. As the Lanes head for New York, where Gerry’s old friends from the U.N. promise government aid, shoppers are attacked in supermarket aisles searching for supplies and customers in gas stations are attacked while waiting for fuel. Corpses litter the roads, and gun lobbies rally to blow the oozing zombies to kingdom come with an arsenal of power weapons. This movie is off and running.
The Lanes get as far as Newark, where they take shelter in the apartment of a family that is decimated by the invading doomsday killing machines, then they score space in a helicopter heading for safe harbor on a military base in the Atlantic, 200 miles from New York City. In record time, the scientists searching for the origin of the virus in order to identify it and develop a vaccine recruit Gerry to head a group of Navy SEALs heading into the unknown. While his terrified family remains aboard the quarantined rescue ship at sea, Gerry and his crackerjack team discover one nightmare after another. Washington, D.C., is dark. The president is dead. Clues provided by a CIA agent (David Morse), now in custody for selling arms to North Korea, direct them on a global chase to Korea, Jerusalem, Budapest, Malta and Scotland. In Israel, where the Jews have decades of experience building walls, one of the film’s most awesome and effective scenes literally detonates before your eyes as thousands of frothing, foaming zombies form a human ladder, scale the barriers and leap into the populace below while the ancient streets fill with a tidal wave of snarling, biting people. In another vital scene, Mr. Pitt hurls a hand grenade into a commercial jet where the virus has turned the passengers and crew into snarling carnivores, exploding on impact over the landscape like debris. This film will undoubtedly provoke diverse reactions, but nobody can say it’s dull.
Nearing an incendiary finale close to the two-hour mark, World War Z finally turns preposterous when Brad Pitt invades a World Health Organization research facility in Cardiff, Wales, where the pathogens needed to make a zombie vaccine are stored in a sealed-off wing of the facility that has been overtaken by the creatures. It’s his task to travel through the passages full of zombies that connect the two wings, avoid snapping fangs, and retrieve samples of the world’s deadliest diseases, bravely injecting himself with a vial of something lethal to test his theory that with the right vaccine, infected victims can become invisible to zombies.
There’s more, but this is one movie that only works if the ending remains a secret. The hokey 3-D gimmicks (bodies falling from rooftops, helicopters from reverse angles and zombies galore pouncing from every doorway) don’t always pay off, though the end credits for prosthetic devices, zombie makeup and digital effects are still running after the audience has left the cinema. Meanwhile, in an effort to soften the book’s doomsday cynicism, the impact is compromised by a finale in which a number of nice people survive.
Don’t let that deter you. This is not a movie about acting, but Mr. Pitt miraculously manages to survive every obstacle with heroic resolve. And no matter how many changes they made in the Max Brooks novel, the nonstop action packs in the thrills. A lot has been written about how director Marc Forster was repeatedly forced to alter the original book, eliminate whole sequences (including one elaborate section of the movie set in Russia) and dilute the collision of zombies and politics into a movie that would not harm international box office (it is still banned in China). But the third-act message in a film so nihilistic that it would make Friedrich Nietzsche cheer: “Be prepared for anything. Our war has just begun.” Robustly mounted, magnificently photographed and bone-crunchingly terrifying, World War Z towers above every other alleged summer blockbuster. It’s the real deal.
WORLD WAR Z
Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof
Directed by Marc Forster
Starring Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos and James Badge Dale
Running time: 116 mins.