While I’m not opposed to digging zombie stuff in a kind of goofy cultural way, I don’t care for zombie movies very much. One reason for this is that I just don’t like my scary movies to be particularly gory, and that’s common with zombie movies. The viscera is often such a part of the genre that toning it down feels like a betrayal for some fans. But more than that, they just make me edgy and uncomfortable. I don’t think of myself as a squeamish person, but zombie movies bring out some very unpleasant feelings in me. It’s a kind of terror that I don’t like very much.
So why on earth would I subject myself to World War Z, the adaptation of Max Brook’s novel? Well, even though I don’t like zombie movies, I do like those Roland Emmerich-style end-of-the-world movies. You know the kind. There’s a global civilization-ending scenario, mass panic, fake news stories, and of course enormous special effects setpieces where you see the destruction firsthand. Roland Emmerich is the director who codified this kind of movie for me, with Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012. They are my guilty pleasures, the stupid movies that I defend as quality dreck. World War Z actually borrows a lot more from that genre, mostly using the zombies as an excuse to set everything in motion. It takes all of the fun stuff about those worldwide disaster movies, and filters out most of the elements that make people hate those movies in the first place. World War Z is far tighter and more thrilling than its peers, and though iit fudges a lot of what makes it go in the first place, it’s tense and exciting enough to make me not mind.
I’ve not read the original book, but my understanding is that the movie is not so much an adaptation as it is inspired by Brook’s novel. Brad Pitt is Gerry Lane, a former UN agent who is suddenly thrust back into action when a bad case of the zombies breaks out all over the world. Following a harrowing escape from the onslaught with his family in Philadelphia, he connects with UN leadership and goes gallivanting around the world, trying to learn all he can about the outbreak and how to fight it. Of course, he can’t land anyplace without needing to narrowly escape a horde of the undead.
The zombies here aren’t of the shambling, moaning variety. They are almost like insects, rushing their prey as a swarm and sweeping through streets at a full run. The opening scenes in Philly take a sky-level view of the struggle, and it reminded me of nothing so much as the storming of Aqaba in Lawrence of Arabia. The most striking scene, played to death in promotional material, is the writhing mass of the undead trying to scale a wall in Israel. They pile on top of each other until the simply spill over the top, and that’s something I’ve never seen before with zombies. All of this is done with a surprising lack of bloodshed, no doubt to maximize the number of people who can see the movie without adults. Zombie fans might cry foul, but for me it helped to focus the movie more on thrills than on blood and guts.
And there are some terrific thrills to be had. I compared it to Emmerich’s disaster movies, but director Marc Forster wastes almost no time getting things rolling. There is maybe 5-10 minutes of setup, and the characters are literally running for their lives. It doesn’t do many favors for character development, but I don’t think anyone who’s watching cares all that much about Lane’s reasons for leaving the UN, certainly not when there’s undead to escape. The early scenes where he guides his family to safety are particularly grueling, since he’s running with two children and his wife. One of the most tense moments takes place not with the zombies, but when the family runs to a grocery store to get supplies. The chaos and the fear is palpable, and that’s what makes the movie work. The other standout scene is an outbreak on an airliner, where the passengers pile luggage to hold back the swarm for a few more minutes.
Indeed, the movie moves so quickly that only after it was done did I stop and wonder why exactly it took me to all those places. World War Z cost a hefty $190 million to make, and I assume a lot of that is wrapped up in location shooting and tons of extras. Most of the effects look like practical ones, favoring real people and explosions over graphics where possible. All of that money makes for some awesome thrills, but the story itself is mostly designed to get Brad Pitt from point A to point B without having to mess with too many details. There are a couple of other elements that are altogether too convenient for what the movie needs. It really doesn’t do a great job of covering those seams, so if you’re the type who likes to pick apart movies for plot holes, you’ll probably have a field day.
However, I’m not that type. For me, World War Z worked as precisely what it is, a big summer movie. Its wandering plot didn’t keep me from getting genuinely excited when that mob of zombie flips over the bus, or when they start throwing themselves at cars to batter their way in. It works in the moment, which is all some movies need to do.