A film review by Craig J. Koban July 3, 2013


2013, PG-13, 116 mins.

Brad Pitt as Gerry Lane  /  Enos as Karen Lane  /  James Badge Dale as Captain Speke  /  Peter Capaldi as W.H.O. Doctor

Directed by Marc Forster  /  Written by Mathew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, and Damon LIndelof, based on the book by Max Brooks

WORLD WAR Z is based on the best selling 2006 zombie apocalypse novel written by Max Brooks (son of Mel), which is still unread by yours truly.  Alas, my job here as a film critic is to review the film on its own merits and not how well it adapts its literary source material.  Considering the relative smorgasbord of zombie-plagued films that have been unleashed on us for so very long, WORLD WAR Z certainly has its work cut out for it in terms of being novel and unique.  Thankfully, and rather refreshingly, this Marc Forster directed film does score points for ingenuity and daring to go against the grain of its genre.  Considering all of the controversy surrounding the project (more on that in a bit) WORLD WAR Z is a cohesively sustained, frighteningly immersive, and epically staged and intense end-of-days thriller.  

For starters, WORLD WAR Z absconds away from the more insular look and feel that has dominated so many other zombie horror films.  Countless others in the past have dealt with the consequences of such a plague on small-scale levels, but Forster’s film wonderfully opens up its story to span most of the world and how such an outbreak would affect…well…everyone.  Secondly, zombie films have always been known for their hard-edged R-rated gore, and the PG-13 rating for WORLD WAR Z was, initially for me, a damning red flag.  Fortunately for us, Forster and company work around this typically watered-down rating by establishing and fostering a mood of escalating dread throughout.  Any film can throw repetitive brain bashing carnage on screen, but this film lets nail-biting tension and scares fuel its apocalypse, which oddly makes its undead monsters even more terrifying of a menace as a result.  Scaring audiences, I have always maintained, is harder to do than disgusting them. 

The opening scenes of the film are its finest, as they establish the relative normalcy of a family’s day that then rather quickly descends into panic when the world around them rather quickly succumbs to a virus that makes its victims savage, unthinking creatures.   We meet an ex-military investigator named Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) that has a loving wife, Karen (Mireille Enos) and two young daughters.  He’s driving the family through the crowded streets of Philadelphia as he has countless times before…but then all hell breaks loose when ordinary people are taken over by a rabies-like pandemic that turns them into rampaging flesh-eaters.  Using his military and political connections, Gerry manages to get his family safely away from Philadelphia and then to Newark, NJ, after which they are escorted to an offshore aircraft carrier.  Philadelphia, Newark, and most other American cities are now overrun by their new ghoulish menace. 



Not everything is stable on the aircraft carrier, though.  Gerry and his family are given safe haven, but only if he decides to head up a military and epidemiologist team abroad to discover the source of the zombie plague and a possible solution to this ever-escalating worldwide crisis.  Begrudgingly, Gerry agrees to his task, and boards a cargo plane that first goes to South Korea and then to other countries, including Israel, where he discovers that certain people are indeed immune, so to speak, from zombies ever attacking them.  From here, Gerry’s investigation takes him to Wales and the offices of the World Health Organization, where he hopes to uncover the secrets of Patient Zero once and for all.  Unfortunately for him and the few remaining survivors there, most of the WHO doctors have already been turned. 

There has never been, to my knowledge, a zombie film with the large-scale, globetrotting scope of WORLD WAR Z, which gives it a freshness of approach.  If anything, the film almost becomes more of an elaborate and enthralling who-or-what-dunnit medical mystery thriller that just happens to have hordes of the undead in it.  The film is also spearheaded by Brad Pitt’s pitch-perfectly underplayed performance.  One of the key assets of WORLD WAR Z is that Pitt does not play Gerry as beefed-up, uber strong, and blunt force action hero.  Instead, he’s more intriguingly a man of cerebral action that uses his wits, attention to finer details, and keen deductive prowess really stand out.  The way Pitt allows for Gerry to emerge as an inwardly strong, but nonetheless frightened and vulnerable figure allows for our easy dramatic engagement in the film’s narrative. 

This is not to say that the film is meek minded when it comes to zombie action, and the German-born Forster – a director that struggled, I think, with action in QUANTUM OF SOLACE and previously directed films as far-ranging as FINDING NEVERLAND and STRANGER THAN FICTION – stages the frequently massive scenes of terror with a real gusto, combining cutting edge visual effects, editing, and pacing to sell the intensity of these moments.  The zombie menace has never been portrayed with such an awe-inspiring and alarming enormity as it is here: In Israeli, for instance, thousands of the creatures swarm up like a giant ant-colony to make it over a large fortified wall into Jerusalem and, when inside, a swarm bowls over a huge bus like it was fly paper.  The film even manages to niftily explain why some zombies are ultra-fast moving monsters whereas some are slow and lumbering Romero-esque ghouls.  Later scenes – showcasing Gerry trying to find a way to get past the infected WHO staff to what may appear to be a solution to the infestation – are wickedly realized moments of fingernail-biting intensity.   

WORLD WAR Z has had its share of controversy, especially when it was revealed that its originally shot third act was dumped, requiring cast and crew to return to shoot up to 40 minutes of additional Damon Lindelof written footage, which subsequently made the film’s already large budget swoon to over $200 million.  Even with this knowledge going in, I was pretty hard pressed to notice any glaring incongruities between the first two-thirds of the film and its newly minted climax.  It’s a testament to the filmmakers here that WORLD WAR Z does not feel like a patchwork assembled and troubled production.  The transition from Gerry’s global investigation and finally to the overrun government lab is remarkably seamless and unobtrusive.  Any visible signs of expensive reshoots are virtually null and void here.  For those blissfully unaware of the film's production woes, you'll be hard pressed to notice at all. 

Alas, WORLD WAR Z will most likely anger and frustrate die hard fundamentalists of Brooks’ book, which, from what I’ve heard, greatly diverges from the more episodic and eye-witness account centric source story.  The film’s ending seems more interested in setting up sequels than with providing for a satisfying conclusion.  The 3D upconversion is also one of the shoddiest I’ve seen (skip it and see it in 2D).  Yet, if you are willing to overlook all of that, then WORLD WAR Z emerges as a fiendishly ambitious, surprisingly gripping, and efficiently and sleekly rendered zombie scare fest.  It generates nerve-wracking shivers in just the right moments and is smart and imaginative with its presentation of how our world would react to such a calamitous and nearly unstoppable undead danger.  WORLD WAR Z may drastically diverge from its literary material, but it’s still a thrillingly and skillfully made addition to our long-standing zombie film canon. 

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