"The president is dead," the UN bigwig intones to a dumbstruck Pitt. And in that instant, it becomes apparent that this is some next-level s#!t for a zombie movie.
See, the living dead genre was for decades an on-the-cheap, hide-in-the-farmhouse kind of thing. Movie stars didn't headline them, studios didn't bankroll them with franchise tentpole dreams, and the mainstream
But World War Z, inspired by if not really based on the popular book by Max Brooks, isn't just a zombie movie. And this is where that line about the president comes in: The film, which Pitt also produced, is designed to be less a horror movie than it is a globe-spanning, international thriller, albeit one with zombies in it. This isn't Rick and Shane camping in the woods. Nah, Pitt's character, Gerry Lane, jets around the world -- well, what's left of it -- in search of an answer to how to stop the plague before it's too late! You could say this is the epic of zombie films… and it works for the most part.
Forster (Quantum of Solace) wastes no time getting the end of the world started here, as Pitt and his brood -- after some fleeting moments of family-bonding time -- are overwhelmed early in the film by a deluge of the living dead. Stuck in traffic, Gerry notices something is amiss. And soon enough, the city streets around them are transformed into a disaster zone in a matter of minutes as the bitten bite the living, creating more bitten… You know the drill.
But the scale of this scene makes the familiar feel fresh, even while we quickly realize that this film will not be offering up much blood. Amid all this carnage, there is nary a trace of real guts or gore. Move along, Fangoria fans, nothing to see here. (There are some carefully applied cuts on Pitt's pretty-boy face, though, for those who are interested.) That said, the film's still got plenty of scares.
Eventually, Gerry and his family make it to the safety of a military fleet at sea, but his old bosses want him back on the job stat. Sure, his wife and kids are safe with the fleet… as long as Gerry can stay alive long enough to accomplish his mission. (The Killing's excellent Mireille Enos does what she can as Pitt's wife here, but it's mostly a thankless role involving waiting around for her hubby to call. And the film's subplot regarding her increasingly tenuous situation on the ship is inexplicably dropped in the end.)
Beyond the international settings and the concept of depicting how different world governments would react in such a situation -- North Korea's solution to the infestation apparently is to pull all of its citizens' teeth out! -- the film doesn't bear much resemblance to Brooks' book. And that's fine as long as fans know that going in, as that highly episodic tale didn't even have a main character to center a movie around (it really would've made more sense as a TV miniseries anyway).
As for the zombies themselves, despite what we've seen in the ads, they're actually a mix of the fast, running type of ghoul and the slow, shambling, classic Romero variety. The script's reasoning behind this is pretty clever, actually. And while the mountains and mountains of undead that swarm like human-sized insects run the risk of being too CGI at times, ultimately I found that these scenes worked pretty well. The all-out bedlam and anxiety of the mass attacks displaces any such concerns.
(These undead can also be kind of funny, in a creepy way, when we see them up close -- and played by actors rather than pixels).
Less effective, unfortunately, is the third act of the film. World War Z's production problems have been well-publicized, with re-shoots and cost overruns and all the rest of it, but it's only during the film's denouement that you can possibly see those fracture lines. It's tough to discuss the ending, obviously, without spoiling it, but essentially Pitt's Gerry -- an obviously bright and resourceful guy throughout the film -- makes a really dumb choice that will decide not just his fate, or his family's, but the world's. And the results of that choice are even more dumb. Along the way, much of the logic and "real world" feel of the film go out the window as well. Of course, Star Trek Into Darkness and Prometheus' Damon Lindelof was brought in to help fix the film's ending. It shows.
Zombie fans will also be bored by the occasional derivative element that pops up, the kind of stuff that any Walking Dead viewer already has figured out. But largely, World War Z is less a zombie movie than it is an intense thriller that just happens to have zombies all over the place. The film's final moments hint at the possibility of a sequel, and I for one would be up for more adventures in this particular land of the dead.