After you’ve seen World War Z, come back and listen to our Spoiler Special:
Brad Pitt outruns a big-ass pile of very fast zombies—and near-singlehandedly thwarts a worldwide invasion by the undead—in Marc Forster’s World War Z, an adaptation of the 2006 novel by Max Brooks (who is also the author of the best-selling Zombie Survival Guide and, in a completely un-zombie-related but fun note, the son of Mel Brooks and the late Anne Bancroft).
If you were a fan of Brooks’ book, which used a Studs Terkel–style oral-history format to explore the societal breakdown such a flesh-chomping pandemic might bring in its wake, you may be disappointed at this thriller’s comparatively modest ambitions. Forster really doesn’t aim to do much more than plonk Pitt down on a series of zombie-studded obstacle courses—set in such far-flung global locales as South Korea; Jerusalem; and Cardiff, Wales—and let us watch while he hacks, shoots or sometimes flat-out sprints his way through the slavering hordes to (very temporary) safety. The script, by Matthew Michael Carnahan (State of Play, The Kingdom) with an eleventh-hour rewrite by Lost’s Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof, pragmatically dispenses with any lofty aspirations toward political allegory or genre satire. Ours is not to wonder what the zombie craze says about our current cultural or political moment; ours is but to watch in awe as the Holy City’s walls are breached by a writhing, seemingly sentient mass composed of hundreds of soulless yet still somehow mobile human bodies.
It’s this use of zombies as a kind of sculptural material that will likely be World War Z ’s main contribution to the form. In scene after scene, but most spectacularly in the big Jerusalem set piece, they pour down city streets like flooding rivers and scramble over seething mounds of their undead brethren. The effect—digitally produced, I hope, or those better have been some well-compensated extras—is chilling, not least because the zombie masses, often seen from above in bird’s-eye view, sometimes move in ways that suggest an insect colony or a horde of rodents. Forster’s action scenes are workmanlike (though, to his credit, not incoherent, at least not as compared with those in his unsatisfying Bond entry Quantum of Solace). But the undulating-mass-of-zombies image is this movie’s ace in the hole, the reliably jolting vision it returns to whenever things start to feel a little thin in the story department.
That happens fairly early on, as Pitt’s Gerry Lane, a retired U.N. disaster specialist, is driving his wife Karen (Mireille Enos) and two daughters (Sterling Jerins and Abigail Hargrove) through downtown Philadelphia one ordinary school morning. Within minutes, their commute has become a Dante-esque scene of horror, with cars jack-knifing everywhere as one driver after another is attacked and infected by packs of flesh-eating zombies so invincible they can break through car windshields with their heads. (In this movie’s version of zombie science, the infected start to “turn” after only about 12 seconds, making for a couple of tense scenes structured around suspenseful countdowns.)
Because of Gerry’s bigwig status at the U.N., he and his family, along with an orphaned boy they pick up along the way, are eventually evacuated to a quarantined aircraft carrier. There, Gerry’s former boss (Fana Mokoema) half-guilt-trips, half-strong-arms him into leading a mission to South Korea to find the patient zero of this global pandemic. What he and his team discover there will lead them to Jerusalem and, eventually, to a World Health Organization facility in Wales, where a secure vault full of the world’s most dangerous pathogens may hold a clue to halting the zombie onslaught. But only if Jerry and his crew—by now pretty much reduced to the W.H.O. personnel and one fearless female Israeli soldier (the stone-faced, scene-stealing Danielle Kertesz)—can successfully make their way to the vault through a final, milling mass of zombies.
It’s in the closing scenes that World War Z’s rocky production history begins to show through around the edges (the $200-plus-million-dollar-budgeted film was set to be released last December but was held back for recuts, rewrites, and the shooting of additional material). A jumbled coda alludes to a series of zombie-human skirmishes as we briefly glimpse first Rome, then Moscow abandoned to the undead hordes. It’s clear that these are fragments of a larger story that’s been trimmed for the sake of expediency, but given how efficiently World War Z has delivered jolts and screams over the course of its sleek 116-minute running time, it’s easy to forgive this rushed and slightly muted finale. Not every blockbuster needs to ratchet up the scale of world destruction and the soundtrack volume scene by scene; sometimes it’s just as scary to lock a few people in a deserted lab with some hungry zombies.
I’m not sure if it’s a casualty of the recuts or of tent-pole-Hollywood sexism that poor Mireille Enos, stuck with three kids in a crowded bunkhouse on that aircraft carrier, gets so little to do besides hit redial on her heroic husband’s cellphone number and weep quietly (Though it’s worth noting that Enos also smiles more in a two-hour movie about the zombie apocalypse than she did during an entire season as the glum, Nicorette-chomping lead of AMC’s The Killing.) Brad Pitt, for his part, has perfected the soulful thousand-yard stare of the thinking action hero. There’s a significant element of infantile fantasy in Pitt’s role as the only person on earth capable of reasoning his way out of the zombie crisis (or, it seems, of forming a working scientific hypothesis). Pitt has said that he made the PG-13–rated World War Z (which, for all its high body count, is relatively gore-free) in part so he could have a fun summer movie to take his children to. If Maddox, Pax, Zahara, Shiloh, Knox, and Vivienne get too spooked by the writhing zombie hordes, at least they’ll sleep safe in the knowledge that they live with the guy who can save the world.