A sudden outbreak of a zombie plague leaves the globe in tatters. Former UN worker Gerry Lane (Pitt) and his family seek refuge, before Gerry heads off to Asia in search of a cure...
When the zombie movie as we know it first twitched into life, it was a niche concern, with budgets to match. An invasion of a farmhouse was fine, a city block just about doable, but anything bigger had to be relayed via a flickering TV or solemn radio transmission. Flash forward several decades and you have World War Z: a huge-budget summer release, starring one of Hollywood's biggest and handsomest names, that sets out to actually show a worldwide assault by the undead. The result is slick, tense and hangs together fine, far from the disaster many predicted during its tortured birthing. But it's also just a little bit bland and generic. In particular, horror fans jonesing for grand-scale carnage are unlikely to come away entirely satisfied.
The bleak book from which it takes its name and loose outline, by Max ‘son of Mel’ Brooks, zips all over the globe, looking at the horror from a range of perspectives. It has smart things to say about geo-politics. It also has some astounding images, like a submarine being overwhelmed by zombies on an ocean floor, or the US army’s Alamo-like stand against millions of the ghouls. Almost none of this has made it into the film. Instead, we travel around with Gerry (Brad Pitt), a family man who once ran UN operations into countries where normal mortals wouldn't survive a night. With military infrastructures in shambles and entire nations gone radio-silent, he alone must trace the source of the outbreak. That’s right — the fate of humanity lies in the hands of a man called Gerry.
World War Z’s opening salvo is terrific. Apocalyptic blockbusters usually take a while to crank up and tease what's coming, but this launches right into it without a single winking R.E.M. song. By the time you’re munching your first fistful of popcorn, an entire city (Philadelphia) is being overrun. Director Marc Forster plays the sequence beautifully, keeping the monsters virtually unseen and making the chaos unnerving in itself. It’s strong stuff. But it also sets the tone for what to expect in terms of gore, or lack of it. This is a movie in which millions of people die, but barely a drop of blood is seen. As for guts, forget it: these zombies — and the word is used regularly — don’t seem to have an appetite.
They're still scary, though, particularly when they’re swarming across the screen like pissed-off army ants. Simon Pegg and other zombie purists are likely to tut up a storm: these reanimated corpses don’t just run, but leap, clamber and power-slide about with inhuman gusto. It’s undeniably effective to see thousands of them descend upon their prey, all the while screeching like velociraptors and chomping their teeth. (The effects are handled well, though the editing is sometimes over-frenetic.) The shame is that, whether for budgetary reasons or to try to keep things more character-based, this type of vast-scale action is limited to a single set-piece, during the film’s mid-point Israel segment. Considering the movie’s title, it would have been nice to see a lot more war.
Instead, the majority of the run-time sees Pitt and an assortment of sidekicks facing down “Zeke” in a familiar array of bunkers, apartment blocks and labs. While it’s all handled with skill and the actors sell the fear, it feels like a slight gyp, especially when the climax of the movie — which was reshot at great expense — is on a smaller scale than the third act of Shaun Of The Dead. There is also more than one slap-your-forehead moment, like the bit where Gerry, a highly trained covert operative, forgets to put his phone on silent while traversing an infected zone. Silly Gerry.
The whole thing feels like a studio dipping its toe in the water: the wrapping-up line, “This isn’t the end... not even close,” makes it clear that there are plans ahoy for further instalments, should there be public appetite. In the meantime, this just about succeeds on its own merits. Few of the characters are memorable (Mireille Enos has the snooziest part as Mrs. Lane, and Matthew Fox barely registers as a paratrooper), but there’s imagery here that’s genuinely horrifying — not least a plane-set sequence which proves that people who fly economy really do suffer the most.
This nightmarish travelogue is coy about gore, but it’s still an effective thrill-ride. If the sequel happens, let’s hope it delivers some actual combat.