For the past several years we've seen the tropes, vernacular and iconography of the "zombie apocalypse" worm their way into the mainstream. What had always been a niche of a niche until now, typified by writer/director George A. Romero's trailblazing 1969 shocker Night of the Living Dead, has given way in the past decade to such genre-busting efforts as 2004's parody Shaun of the Dead, and AMC TV drama The Walking Dead, which enjoys the kind of ratings usually reserved for doctor and lawyer shows on the broadcast nets. In that sense, World War Z, director Marc Forster's big budget, big spectacle star vehicle for Brad Pitt, feels very much like the culmination of that mainstreaming, and thus can't help but seem watered down and ordinary when compared with some of the boundary-breakers that have come before it.
Arriving with a hefty price tag in the vicinity of $200 million, World War Z proudly brandishes its blockbuster bona fides. Gone is much of the visceral horror and underlying subtext and social commentary that Romero brought to his entries (and that author Max Brooks brought to the book from which the movie takes its title -- and little else), replaced instead by the kind of rampaging, panoramic zombie hordes that previous films could never have budgeted for. This is intended primarily as a full-charging summer entertainment that careens along at a pace too freewheeling to dwell on the broader implications of the scenario it presents. And while that approach is gripping in the moment, it's also too-quickly forgotten.
World War Z stars Pitt as Gerry Lane, a former United Nations worker who's called back into duty when a global zombie pandemic claims much of the United States. With his family forced to take refuge on an aircraft carrier anchored off the coast of New York, it falls to Lane to travel from country to country as he attempts to track the plague to its source, searching for a cause -- and perhaps a cure. Along the way, he encounters such familiar faces as David Morse and James Badge Dale (who, with key roles in this, Iron Man 3, and next week's The Lone Ranger, has become the go-to utility player for high stakes summer flicks). By film's end, Lane comes tantalizingly close to finding a way to beat the plague...or has he? Find out the inevitable sequel!
I first discovered World War Z (the book) shortly after its initial publication in fall of 2006, after a chance encounter with the 1985 horror-comedy Return of the Living Dead on pay cable sent me caroming in the direction of the Romero Night, after which I promptly (wait for it) devoured the rest of his Dead cycle, and I haven't looked back since. I discovered the Robert Kirkman Walking Dead comic books shortly thereafter, and after that I downloaded the audiobook of Brooks' tome with great excitement. In fact, I was so captivated by it that I was even listening to it in bed (which turned out to be a huge mistake, as I ended up falling asleep while listening, which lead to one of the more unpleasant nights I've ever had).
One of the book's biggest selling points for me is how it manages to take a globe-spanning, reality-based approach to the (by now) well-cemented notion of what a zombie apocalypse would entail. Presented as an after-the-fact account of what led up to and what eventually overcame the undead affliction, the book compiles the recollections of various participants throughout the ordeal, making for a fascinating oral history of a fictional war. It's riveting stuff, made only more so by the heaping helpings of social commentary and you-are-there immediacy Brooks brings to the genre, as well as how deeply he'd thought it out (something further reflected by his other book, The Zombie Survival Guide).
Given how well the text reads, it's no surprise that a bidding war erupted to translate it to the screen, with Brad Pitt duking it out with Leonardo DiCaprio for the right to film World War Z. And while it's very much clear that this is a passion project for producer Pitt, it's also doubly clear that what he and Forster (along screenwriters J. Michael Straczynski and Damon Lindelof) emerged with from out of the cavernous recesses of Development Hell is so far removed from anything resembling what Brooks actually wrote that they probably would have been better served by simply saving the option money, and just doing their own thing without the expectations that come with adapting such a well-respected title.
In trying to contort Brooks' prose, with its many first-person accounts building on each other (an admittedly difficult-to-adapt conceit) into a configuration that better suits a celluloid receptacle, the creatives have jettisoned both the scope and subtext of Brooks in favor of a more straight-ahead adventure story with Brad Pitt shoehorned in as an everyman who's somehow smarter than scientists, craftier than the military, and more handsome than...well, everyone (that last one is completely forgivable, of course). By film's end, on the heels of an entire third act that was hastily conceived by writer Lindelof after home studio Paramount was unhappy with the original denouement, we have a status quo with some resolution, but not too much (juuuuuust in case those sequels happen).
While I'm not normally opposed to sequels, and I'm not necessarily against one here either, I just don't see the narrative necessity to keep this story going. Now, don't get me wrong, there are some truly terrifying bits throughout. The opening, with the recently resurrected undead overtaking downtown Philadelphia, is appropriately gripping, and a later sequence in Israel, as a legion of ghouls make their way over the repurposed Apartheid Wall, is positively cringe-inducing, as is a later sequence depicting the horror of a an outbreak on an airplane. However, in a broader sense, World War Z doesn't add anything to extant zombie lore. If anything, thanks to necessity of its PG-13 rating, it takes a lot away by removing the uneasiness of what the plague does to individuals.
Thus, while we get the big sweeping vistas and mountainous hordes attempting to bypass whatever barriers have been erected to stop them, we lose the individual toll, and in turn we lose a lot of our investment in the story. Also, and while I have no desire to get dragged into the hoary "slow zombies" versus "fast zombies" thing that burns up so much webspace, I'm gonna go there. The movie switches out the shambling, shuffling corpses from the book (which are of a piece with Romero, Kirkman, etc.) in favor of the running, jumping, super-zombies that first came into play with Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, as well as Zack Snyder's 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. I know that this is a tired argument by now, but I'll repeat it here for the record: Slow zombies are scarier. They just are.
And given that those are the monsters that Brooks populated his book with, the fact that the filmmakers eschewed them and went instead for the hyperactive running/jumping variety is yet another thread that we end up losing from the text. Unfortunate. So in the end we have a movie that's engaging in the moment, with some set pieces that are absolutely gripping, no doubt, but it's also something we leave in the theater, that starts to get clouded over in our memory the instant the credits start rolling. Considering that this genre most excels with storylines that unnerve just as much as they horrify, that chill us on a deeper level beyond the big, momentary shocks, World War Z seems more like a missed opportunity than the worthy start of a new franchise. B-