Movie review: 'World War Z'

For a movie with a famously troubled production history, out-of-control budget, and hastily re-shot ending, “World War Z” didn’t turn out half bad.  It’s more like 20% bad.  The other 80% is a unique, at times awe-inspiring take on the zombie film.

The zombie genre has proven to be quite versatile.  Besides the gory horror films, there have been zombie comedies like “Zombieland” and “Shaun of the Dead.”  There’s even been a zombie romance, “Warm Bodies.”  Now we’ve got a zombie techno-thriller, as Brad Pitt’s U.N. investigator zips around the world in a desperate search for a cure to the undead plague, while cities crumble around him.  (This is one of relatively few zombie films in which the characters actually refer to the monsters as “zombies,” or as American soldiers dub them, “Zeke.”)  

And Pitt really needs to find that cure, because Zeke is not the slow, shambling, easily distracted menace girls are taking out with pocket knives over on “The Walking Dead.”  The bickering, dysfunctional, occasionally dimwitted survivors of that show wouldn’t last five seconds in World War Z.  These things are a tidal wave of arms, legs, and deadly snapping teeth.  They blast through defenses like a tsunami, run like pumas, swarm like roaches, hit like linebackers, and can still fight after throwing themselves from considerable heights.  Sound attracts them, and once they hear you, running like hell is your only option.  They don’t even stop to munch on the fallen; their only concern is biting every living person they can find, and once you suffer even the smallest bite, you have 12 seconds to live.  At last, a zombie menace that really does seem like it could defeat the armed forces of humanity in a straight fight!

Zombie films have been on the opposite trajectory from alien-invasion flicks.  Alien invasions started big, peaked with “Independence Day,” and then began telling more intimate stories about small groups of terrified survivors who never really see the big picture of mankind’s war against the extraterrestrial menace.  Zombie movies started with the intimate horror stories – the granddaddy of them all, “Night of the Living Dead,” is a miracle of claustrophobic tension that can still give new viewers a sleepless night.  “World War Z” is a unique effort to portray the global scale of the zombie war, with Pitt visiting hot spots around the world, while his support team watches computer projections of the whole planet turning zombie red in a matter of weeks.  (That sense of scale is just about the only thing this movie has in common with the book it’s based on, which on the bright side means the book fans don’t have to worry about the movie being spoiled for them, and vice versa.)

For the most part, “World War Z” is tense and fairly smart.  Some of the little details about the global war are intriguing.  (Wait until you hear how the North Koreans are dealing with the undead outbreak.)  This film also deserves a lot of credit for being intense and unnerving without spilling much blood.  The zombie genre is generally noted for its gore, but while “World War Z” implies a few gruesome details, it keeps things PG-13.  It’s remarkable how well that works out.  You really won’t miss the arterial spray and eviscerations.

It’s the final reel that lets this movie down.  It’s not exactly a horrible ending, but it’s a somewhat clumsy change of pace following a tough-to-swallow escape from doom for Pitt’s character.  Suddenly the Biggest Zombie Movie Ever gets very small, a previously reasonable script strains our suspension of disbelief, and we’re listening to voice-over exposition that feels like it should have been followed by a “To Be Continued” end-credits card.  Strangely for a film that reportedly cost something like $200 million to make, it feels like they ran out of money and couldn’t manage the spectacular grand finale they really wanted.  I was satisfied enough with the rest of the film to be curious about how a sequel would look.