Article By: Dan Clark
Zombies have become quite prevalent in pop culture in the last few years. The infatuation with zombies goes back generations, even long before George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead forever changed the genre. For whatever reason there has been a tidal wave of zombie lore injected into the world of popular entertainment recently. One of the early tremors that started that tidal wave was Max Brook’s acclaimed novel World War Z that chronicled the great zombie war through a number of thorough vignettes. Now that novel is receiving the cinematic treatment, though the final product bares little resemblance to the source material. Nearly all the social and political commentary the novel thrived on has been replaced with expansive set pieces and cheap—but effective thrills. As a film World War Z works on the most basic levels—it has the excitement needed to be an entertaining summer blockbuster. What it lacks is any form of substance. It is the personification of fast-food filmmaking—quick, enjoyable, and easily disposable.
The actual production of World War Z has a lot more complexities to it than the main narrative. Reshoots and production delays riddled what was sure to be an absolute disaster. To the filmmakers credit the final product reveals little evidence of the troubled past. In the film Brad Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a recently retired UN investigator who has given up his dangerous lifestyle in order to be with his family. His life change doesn’t last too long as the world is plagued with a catastrophic epidemic. People are transforming into what can only be described as zombies, and these zombies have laid waste to nearly all of the world’s major cities. With the world nearing its possible end, the government calls on Gerry to utilize his skills as an investigator to help determine where the disease originated from. If he can gather this information they may be able to find out how to fight back. This latch ditch effort will take him and his team across the globe to a number of dangerous areas. Their chances are less than slim, but if they succeed it could help the world win this global war.
Typically zombie films are very isolated to a specific area and a specific group of people. Besides the occasional emergency alert there is not much known about what is happening to the world as a whole. World War Z expands that sequestered scope to international portions, though the glimpse it provides is not as far reaching as one would hope. There is certainly more of a travel log approach than your typical horror film, but the story as a whole is still as streamlined as ever. Minus the last five minutes or so this narrative is completely focused on Gerry Lane’s plight. It took this grand scope and miniaturized it to this one vital conflict. While this approach is understandable, it is disappointing the perspective was not as far reaching as it could have been.
One of the key factors to that disappointment is Gerry Lane is a nothing character. He is more of a set of skills than an actual person. Whatever the situation requires he is up for the task. Whether it is cauterizing a massive wound or co-piloting a plane he is the man for the job. Brad Pitt can surely impress when he is given the right material, like in Moneyball or Tree of Life. Here his performance is suitable considering the little he is given to work with. There is very little character development and no resemblance of any type of character arc whatsoever. At times it does harken back to his connection to his family through satellite phone calls and lonely gazes. Those moments are effective enough, yet do little to add any stakes or emotional connection.
Where the film does succeed is its ability to craft massive action sequences that meld the thrills of a disaster film and the tension of a horror movie. An early sequence that involves the destruction of Philadelphia was rather impressive in its scale. Pandemonium is rampant as our civilization is quickly crumbling. How to use the camera in those moments does present a challenge. There were numerous helicopter shots that gave a great vantage point to the cities being overrun. When the action becomes up close and personal the camera is far more erratic. Consent jolts and shaky cam techniques add to the chaos on display.
That goes for an even better sequence that takes place in the city of Jerusalem. A lot of the film’s marketing has been focused on how it uses zombies as this swarm like entity similar to a group of locust or crawling ants. In reality that aspect of the zombies is only briefly touched upon, and reserved for only a few moments. When it is used it surprisingly works as it makes these zombies into a truly threatening force. To call these creates zombies does feel like a stretch. They look like a combination of the CGI vampires from I Am Legend and the infected from 28 Days Later. There are no exposed wounds, rotting flesh, or disemboweled bowels thanks in large part to the PG-13 rating. It was hard not to notice how much this rating impacted the movie. Major violence was never shown as the camera would pan just enough so anything extreme would occur just off camera. Even when limbs are literally chopped off there is little blood used. Not that you need gore to make these moments work, however considering the subject matter it does come off as an odd choice. Plus on occasion the zombies would look unintentionally hilarious. One specific teeth-chattering zombie really undercut an otherwise tension filled climax.
World War Z really hits its stride in its final act. The bombastic action and grand scope are replaced with a more intimate slow-moving setting. This transition is quite jarring as tonally the final act is nothing like what came before. It’s the only part of the film that approaches traditional horror—relaying more on slow movements and silence than immersive special effects. Once you can settle in to this abrupt change of pace you can appreciate its effectiveness. As a whole World War Z works better the less you think about it. Logic is not necessarily a key component to the general plot. The mere reason to choose Gerry Lane for this mission is far-fetched. Nevertheless, it hits the appropriate beats for an entertaining popcorn blockbuster. Die hard fans of the source material need to curtail their expectations, because World War Z is not an encompassing look at a worldwide epidemic. It is simply a disaster movie with zombies. The vehicle may have changed, but the destination is just the same.