World War Z is the long awaited, often delayed, zombie opus starring Brad Pitt. Rumours of on-set bust ups, budgetary wrangles and rewritten endings have been dominating the tabloids and genre media for months. The film is a loose adaptation of Max Brook’s novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. The book pieces together an account of how the zombie apocalypse overtook the planet and the human race pushed back. The film’s protagonist Gerry Lane (Pitt) is a UN operative who is called back to help out as the world succumbs to the zombie plague. His family are granted temporary sanctuary with the UN whilst he searches the globe for the mythical Patient Zero and a cure for the zombie virus.
Let’s get this out of the way nice and early – World War Z is not a horror film, nor is it in any way representative of the source material. World War Z is, for the most part, an action film featuring zombies. The narrative that has been introduced is bland and predictable in the extreme, yet that said, the film still has moments where it just works.
In its best moments, namely the first two-thirds of the film, World War Z is frenetic and pacey. The action is almost unrelenting and a number of the scenes are genuinely breathtaking in terms of their scale and originality. The opening scene in Philadelphia is frantic and as violent and authentic a depiction of the speed and boundless power of humanity being overrun (run being the operative word) by the undead. The scenes in Jerusalem in particular show a zombie horde at their most unwavering; thousands of zombies move as one, swarming through the streets and alleyways of the holy city.
At times the special effects are jarring and cheap yet the idea behind them is well conceived and the power of the zombie juggernaut leaves a strong impression upon the viewer. There are a number of scenes within World War Z that are incredible – cities burn, helicopters and planes plummet down in flames, civilians are crushed and ripped to pieces. Brad Pitt has used his fame to create a personal vanity project with a huge budget that whilst failing to deliver on a number of levels has produced some individual highlights that can only be described as George A. Romero’s wet dreams. Director Mark Forster has created a number of individual scenarios and situations that will appeal to any zombie fan, yet herein lies the problem of the film, for all the action and explosions the film has no character or narrative spark. World War Z works almost as a show reel for how exciting zombies can be in certain scenarios yet as a whole the film does not hold together.
One of the many problems with World War Z is the lack of any kind of empathy with Gerry and the plight of his family. The audience knows nothing about them apart from one scene at the start when Gerry cooks his daughter pancakes. As one of the other faceless characters says later in the film, “so what, everyone has a family”. This is largely true and accentuates how bland and characterless the family angle is. Gerry’s wife is reduced largely to crying down the phone to him and repeatedly telling him how much she loves him. There is no spark or originality to their relationship. The underdevelopment of character at the expense of action is no clearer than in the case of the recently orphaned young boy that Gerry’s family take in. They hardly engage with him, no one even asks if he is bitten after he escaped from an apartment full of the undead. The only time Gerry interacts with the young boy is to tell him that he is “awesome”, before leaving and getting on a helicopter. The action in World War Z may be superbly done at times, but it is at the expense of any emotional hook or cohesion.
The individual zombies in World War Z are poorly presented – whilst menacing as part of a swarm, up close and personal the CGI and makeup effects look shabby and badly thought out. The zombies move in a variety of ways – they are as fast if not faster than the infected in 28 Days Later yet have none of the menace or individual violence. Their movements are more inclined towards Tom and Jerry; they constantly slam head first into walls and doors, rather than savagely attack. The undead constantly click their teeth together in a manner that is more reminiscent of the aliens in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks than any kind of predatory beast. The prosthetics involved in a particularly prevalent zombie towards the end brought to mind the film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches! In short, the attention paid to the swarm of zombies and the CGI surrounding that was far greater than that paid to the individual zombies themselves. This was a key contributing factor in why the ending was so forgettable – once zombies in World War Z are isolated they become more comedic than horrific and this detracts from the peril of the lead characters in the climactic scenes.
World War Z represents the first time that zombies have been dragged into Hollywood in the post-Walking Dead era, it is the biggest budget zombie movie ever made and as a consequence contains some of the most gripping action sequences ever featured in the genre. However, lost in the action and the carnage is the fact that World War Z is typically Hollywood – complex and engaging subject matter has been boiled down to the lowest common denominator for mass consumption. Target audiences will lap up the action scenes and bland characters yet there will be a larger demographic yearning for something more thought provoking. World War Z is a brainless yet entertaining movie in its own right; for the most part it rattles along and provides plenty of thrills and explosions for the viewer’s money. The best advice that can be given to enjoy this film is to leave your preconceptions at home, soak up the action and for two hours forget that Max Brooks’ wonderful book ever existed. You never know, someone might make an accurate representation of it one day…