Aside from its sheer scope, Marc Forster’s film adds little to the zombie horror canon, a subgenre so crowded it’s had little room for additions. Ever since Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later… (2002) repopularized zombie movies, we’ve been deluged by the same old flesh munching. Coming at the tale-end of this fad, World War Z has all the earmarks of a true cinematic disaster: an uneven director whose best work has been on smaller, more intimate films; a $190-million budget allocated toward an ambitious, globetrotting horror epic; and lastly, fairly extensive and time-consuming rewrites and reshoots to change the third act and the entire tone of the film. (The original ending was changed either because it was too grim or because it ended with the infinitely goofy idea of Brad Pitt and a squadron of Russians attacking Oregon to get revenge on Matthew Fox — no, really, look it up.) In spite of these bad omens, the movie is nevertheless a solid — if none too original — take on the zombie picture.
I’ve never read the film’s source material, written by Mel Brooks’ son Max, though I do understand it has little to do with the author’s faux oral history of a zombie apocalypse. Instead, Forster and the movie’s whopping four writers have taken the general idea of chronicling a worldwide outbreak of zombies and turned it into an action-horror hybrid. The film starts small, as former U.N. investigator Gerry (Brad Pitt) and his family barely escape the initial violence of this zombie epidemic. It’s not long before he’s rescued by his former boss (Fana Mokoena, Safe House) and coerced into helping suss out the origins of this contagion in hope of finding a cure. Owing to this, the film is structured as a series of set pieces, with Gerry going around the world — from South Korea to Jerusalem to Wales — while we learn more about the specifics of what’s happened.
The zombies here are much like the fleet-footed ones in 28 Days Later… but portrayed more as an overwhelming, violent swarm of undead — one of the few twists in which the film adds to existing lore. Because of this, the film is light on pure horror — even lighter on gore, as evidenced by its PG-13 rating — and paced more like an action movie. Perhaps this is Forster’s fault as a director who seems ill-equipped to handle gruesomeness. Images that should be horrific come across as poorly staged and flaccid — like pyres of burning zombie corpses. Perhaps it’s just the studio-mandated, teen-friendly rating. The movie does, however, have the fortitude to establish early on that no character, even a major one, is safe from sudden death. It’s an angle that actually cranks up the film’s suspense. There’s a sense of depth to almost everyone we meet. Pitt isn’t given much to do as our hero, but he’s got enough charisma and charm to pull off this kind of summer movie uber-mensch role.
Unfortunately, one of the film’s greatest failings is that it never feels like anything’s at stake. With all the work World War Z puts into world-building, there’s never a sense that this zombie outbreak is more than just a problem to be solved. To compare it to 28 Days Later… again, the sense of total despair amid the crumbling of civilization that existed in Boyle’s film just isn’t here. No one seems too worried that the world’s eroding. Maybe this wouldn’t be such a problem if World War Z — right down to chunks of its musical score — wasn’t so influenced by Boyle’s classic. This doesn’t keep Forster’s film from being an entertaining summer action flick, just don’t expect anything special. Rated PG-13 for intense zombie sequences, violence and disturbing images.
Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande