by Steve Habrat
In 1968, Duane Jones and a rag-tag group of desperate and confused survivors holed up in a rural Pennsylvania farmhouse as undead cannibals roamed the yard waiting for their meals to emerge from their boarded up safe-haven. The survivors, who were armed with only a rusty rifle and a handful of bullets, were almost completely oblivious to what was happening a mile away from where they were hiding, their only source of information being messy and almost skeptical reports from spooked news anchors. The television flickered images of flustered government officials dashing to a car and mentioning something about radiation from space causing all the chaos in America’s streets. There was also the hollow reassurance from local authorities that the situation was under control even though you got the uneasy feeling that these events were going to get worse before they got better. Other than that, the survivors of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead were on their own, with their backs pressed firmly against the wall. Forty-five years later, we have director Marc Forster and Brad Pitt’s vast World War Z, which is based on the globetrotting novel by Max Brooks. Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead preyed upon the viewer’s fear of being confined into a tight space by a horror that lacked clear-cut explanation. As far as scope is concerned, Forster’s World War Z is the polar opposite of Romero’s vision, presenting the audience with sprawling shots of zombie mayhem from all over the world and much to this viewer’s surprise, it is actually a pretty effective zombie blockbuster.
World War Z begins with former UN employee Gerry Lane (played by Brad Pitt), his wife, Karin (played by Mireille Enos), and their two daughters, Rachel (played by Abigail Hargrove) and Constance (played by Sterling Jerins) caught in a nasty Philadelphia traffic jam. On the radio, a fuzzy news report talks of a rabies outbreak that has apparently spread internationally. Overhead, helicopters roar and ambulance sirens echo through the buildings. Suddenly, there is an explosion just up the road and panic erupts as zombies charge through the bumper-to-bumper maze. Gerry and his family manage to escape to an apartment complex where they are to be extracted by a helicopter sent by Gerry’s former UN colleague, Thierry (played by Fana Mokoena). The Lane’s are taken to a US Navy ship that is just off the coast of New York City. On board, Gerry learns that the president is dead, the vice president is missing, and that the world is going to Hell in the blink of an eye. Thierry and the ship’s naval commander soon approach Gerry about accompanying virologist Dr. Fassbach (played by Elyes Gabel) on a mission to find the source of the outbreak. Gerry reluctantly accepts the mission and the two men set out towards South Korea, but as the investigation deepens, their dangerous journey also takes them to Jerusalem and Cardiff.
What was only heard about and distantly felt in Night of the Living Dead is shown to the viewer in full CGI glory in the rocky opening moments of World War Z. Forster assaults the viewer with blurry images of panicked citizens running for their lives as cars smash into one another, buildings blow up, and snapping zombies jump through the air like banshees. Unlike Romero’s shuffling ghouls, Forster’s zombies are more in the vein of the cannibals found in Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. These zombies have cloudy white eyes that bulge out of their head and they twitch, spaz out, and when they spot their prey, dash wildly towards their meal. They hurl themselves off of buildings towards spinning helicopters and when they hear a noise on the other side of the massive wall that protects Jerusalem, they pile on top of each other like ants to reach their victims. While the initial glimpses of the ghouls in the World War Z trailers were a little corny, the finished product is pretty impressive, especially when viewed in long intervals from above. While these overhead shots are here to wow, they also allow Forster to conceal some of the gut munching that is taking place in the streets. Considering World War Z is rated PG-13, Forster is forced to really cut back on the violence that has become a staple of the zombie subgenre. He keeps the violence largely off screen but there are still more than a few moments that will make you wince. Be warned, zombie fanatics, there is none of the intestine spewing carnage that Romero is known for.
It was no secret that there was quite a bit of off-screen drama surrounding World War Z, both before and during production. Before the cameras rolled on the $200 million dollar project, there was a massive bidding war for the rights between Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way, and Brad Pitt’s company, Plan B Entertainment. Pitt wasn’t content on just having the rights to the film—he also stars in this epic zombie beast. Pitt is the only A-list star billed in World War Z and he gives his all in his performance. He is a loving family man before the violence comes crashing down and he is a driven investigator racing to save the human race when the zombies charge towards him. The action allows Pitt to be tough-guy hero in certain places, but some of the scenes are plagued by action movie clichés that will just have you shaking your head. As far as the supporting acts go (which is everyone else), Enos is asked to just hover around a cell phone and wait for Gerry to call and reassure her that he hasn’t become an all-you-can eat buffet. Gabel is given a small and brief role as Dr. Fassbach, who is convinced he can find a way to beat the virus. Mokoena shuffles around the Navy ship and is simply asked to explain how bad the situation is to Pitt. Unknown actress Daniella Kertesz is here as a shoot-first-as-questions-later Israeli soldier named Segen, who joins up with Pitt in Jerusalem. Make sure you keep your eyes peeled for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Matthew Fox (Alex Cross) a Navy SEAL operative and a small, scene-stealing appearance by David Morse (The Green Mile) as a former CIA operative with a nasty story to tell about North Korea’s approach to containing the zombie outbreak.
Considering that World War Z is a zombie movie, there is no doubt that you are wondering if it is actually scary. While there is quite a bit more emphasis on the 10-miles-wide action, World War Z offers up its fair share of nail-biting suspense, especially in the smartly claustrophobic climax that subtly winks at Romero’s 1968 game changer. Initially, I was unsure if I cared for this drastic shift in vision (those gliding God’s-eye-views are really something), but I’ve warmed to it in the hours since I’ve seen the film. What ultimately holds World War Z back from being a great zombie blockbuster is the number of clichés that you’ll find throughout its runtime. It seems that every place that Pitt’s Gerry steps, zombies manage to conveniently come barging in right when he gets a lead and you’ll highly doubt that he could survive a specific fiery plane crash. Oh well, he’s clearly having a good time playing a he-man action hero and I’m certainly not going to rain on his parade. Overall, World War Z gets off to an awkward start, but once it finds its groove, the film morphs into fun-but-flawed apocalyptic journey. It proves that there is still some wild-eyed life in the zombie subgenre and what Romero couldn’t afford to show us in Night of the Living Dead is actually pretty chilling stuff.