America has not wanted for zombie-related works in the last decade. And neither have I. As any self-respecting nerd would, I gorged on “Dawn of the Dead,” “Shaun of the Dead,” “The Walking Dead” (in comic, video game, and television formats), “Zombieland,” “28 Days Later,” and on and on. The “z word” gets dropped a few times in “World War Z,” one of the sillier bits that feels like a studio note, but otherwise director Marc Forster keeps things steadily in the here and now. No backstory, no bullshit, just a shitload of zombies, and Brad Pitt. It makes for a great, if simple, flick–zombie or otherwise.
There are five credited writers for “World War Z,” which usually predicts a muddled mess, but considering the rather thin plot is based on Max Brooks’ book, I guess there was only so much damage they could do. The zombies, however, manage a city-destroying level of damage. These undead speed freaks are a far cry from the slow plodders of “Dawn of the Dead” or . . . really any movie with “dead” in the title. The fact that the zombies are not just human-shaped cattle makes the movie far more exciting. Especially in the first half, the movie delivers more tension and scares than any entire season of “The Walking Dead “ever did. A combination of some truly inspired direction by Forester, who could have easily phoned this one in, and a bang-bang editing job by his comrade Matt Chesse, turn every rote run-away-from-zombies sequence into a treat. Honestly, the action and thrills have no business being as entertaining as they are.
Pitt plays Everyday Hero Man 1 and Mireille Enos (by far the best thing about AMC’s “The Killing”) plays Sad Wife. 2 For all the good the five screenwriters did, they either forgot or neglected to inject real characterization, hell, any character at all, into their characters. I should hate this fact and lament that because we know nothing about Brad Pitt’s Hero Man, any loss, redemption, or triumph he experiences is trivialized and emotionally vacant, and yet I loved watching Hero Man fight zombies and try to figure out a way to save the world. In some ways, it works that he is an Everyman, someone that we can relate to and say, “OK, I might do that if the world was overtaken by a horde of zombies.” It feels like a missed opportunity not to even attach a stereotype, the grizzled vet, the brash rookie, to his character, but it also allows Forester to race through a variety of intense, absurdly gorgeous set pieces with ease and weightlessness. Enos’s Sad Wife, however, misses the mark in a big way, serving only as motivation for the male protagonist. Enough breaks are taken in the story that Wife’s saga back home (Hero Man is sent on a mission early on, while Wifey stays behind to protect the kids) could have been documented and exploited to great dramatic effect. Oh, and the only time two women talk to each other is when one offers the other a beer in Spanish.
That all being said, “World War Z” takes the zombie genre and cranks it. The “zekes” (my favorite zombie slang word ever) are ferocious and loathsome, true adversaries even for well-equipped militaries. The sense of dread and chaos haunt the entire movie, mostly due to the striking overhead pans of thousands of zombies raging through once blooming cities. “World War Z,” despite its place as a surface-level action movie, contains a surprising amount of sadness. The best laid plans are shattered in the worst ways and even the ending isn’t all roses and sunshine. The destruction and consequences of a zombie outbreak are shown with stark bleakness.
Hero Man travels to a variety of locales, the “Lonely Planet” of zombie infestations, and this helps to keep the sets and action fresh. The music throbs and pulses, a mix between Muse (who contributed music to the score) and Yeezus (who did not), swelling and dropping at all the right times. Seriously, this movie kicks ass, especially before the plot thins out toward the third act. Toward the last third of the movie there is much more talking about what to do next, and a lot less actually doing it. In fact, it feels like the climax comes with about 40 minutes to go; the final scene of tension drags on for far too long. Nonetheless, I was thoroughly entertained and definitely wanted to know what was going to happen, or pop out, next.
For some reason 3 the powers-that-be decided to make “World War Z” a bloodless PG-13 affair. While they pull it off for a while, gore definitely isn’t necessary to create fear, later it feels like the movie was edited for television, missing key shots only because they would be too graphic. Because of the PG-13 rating, an out-of-place sterility dampens the film’s overall veracity. I did not miss the cursing and, again, I don’t feel that gore is required, but the screenwriters wrote in scenes (a crowbar getting stuck in a zombie corpse) that highlighted what wasn’t being shown.
Despite its flaws, “World War Z” was the perfect zombie movie–fast-paced, tense, exciting, and a bit mindless. Put down your crowbar of criticism and let this one munch on your brain.