During the opening credits of the new apocalyptic zombie thriller World War Z we see that the day begins like any other. The sun rises, people emerge from their beds and commute to work, breakfast TV shows cheerfully present the day’s weather forecast, and talking heads discuss the issues of the moment. But there’s something else going on. Between the making of the morning coffee and the glimpses of people going about their daily business we also hear snatches of TV news items that use words like ‘virus’ or ‘doomsday,’ and the images we see are of rabid animals attacking each other. We’re not sure what or why but from the ominous tone there’s obviously something going on somewhere.
Cut to Philadelphia PA. Ex UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family are stuck in a traffic jam. Within seconds of being in their company there’s an explosion about half a mile behind them. People are suddenly running, cars are crashing. Lane and his wife grab their children and join the run, even though they’re not quite sure what they’re running from. And then Lane notices something. One of those running behind him looks crazed, liked a diseased, rabid animal. The affected man attacks another, severely biting him. A talking child’s toy falls to the ground and begins a counting exercise and we cleverly see how quickly someone turns from normalcy into another rabid, frenzied creature. It takes the count of twelve. All of this happens in the first couple of minutes and from there it doesn’t stop.
World War Z is based on what many considered a difficult novel by Max Brooks, son of iconic American funny man Mel Brooks. There were also rumors of trouble on set, studio re-writes and a lot of the dreaded post-production re-shoots, yet the finished product shows little sign of being a problematic project. It’s actually a first-class thriller with a horror base that hooks you from the get-go, and unlike many huge, action packed blockbusters of late, it actually engages.
“What is it?” asks Lane when talking to his former United Nations boss. “We don’t know,” replies the man. But we do. There’s a zombie pandemic spreading the globe and it’s growing faster than kudzu. But these zombies are different. Unlike the ones we’ve seen in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which are essentially animated cadavers slowly rambling forward with hardly enough energy to put one foot in front of the other, these zombies rush at you in turbulent swarms, flinging themselves over each other, biting whoever is near and infecting whole cities in a matter of minutes. The aerial view of Philadelphia once the city is infested is quite startling.
The reason why the film works so well is that you find yourself caring about the fate of Lane, his family, and others we get to know, and once this feeling of genuine concern is established, the huge action set pieces take on a form that differentiate themselves from other spectacles that may appear eye-popping but fail to draw you in. Director Marc Forster, who delivered Quantum of Solace – arguably the worst Bond ever – here handles the action with startling efficiency. The sequence behind the walls that initially protects Israel from outside forces is spectacular, as is the attack of the crazed creatures on a giant airline, but unlike other large scale productions that insist on bloating the proceedings by making everything bigger and louder and never ending as it goes along, World War Z actually scales down towards the end, and is better for it. The best and most nail-biting sequence takes place within the cramped corridors of a World Health Organization building in Cardiff, Wales, with just a small handful of zombies standing between the hero and a possible solution to the pandemic.
Like almost all zombie films, the film doesn’t end altogether well. After everything we’ve gone through, there’s a sense of emptiness during the final few moments as if the wind has finally gone out of its sails, but with a theme like this, a full on, up beat conclusion would be impossible. But at least there’s a hint that those who have survived this horrifying experience will get to live hopefully ever after. Thank goodness this is only a movie.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 115 minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)