‘World War Z’ movie review: Brad Pitt vs. the zombie apocalypse

The lingering image of World War Z is one of massive waves of zombies flooding down the streets and climbing on top of each other to get over a giant wall. They aren’t singular entities but one giant horde, an ocean of insects, or, more pointedly, a virus: the typical zombie pathogen literalized into a mass of beings in search of one collective goal.

But these aren’t your typical zombies, which are usually identified by an insatiable hunger for human flesh. Instead, these creatures couldn’t be less in chowing down on humans. At first, I assumed the filmmakers were just shying away from the violence in order to obtain a PG-13 rating; later, we learn that the zombies have only one objective – to spread their disease – and a single bite is enough to accomplish that goal.

The film, from the novel of the same name by Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft), is not so much a zombie movie as a story of global pandemic a la Outbreak or Contagion. Typical zombie themes – such as watching a loved one turn into an undead monster, and being forced to pull the trigger – are completely absent, as the story focuses on a wider perspective.

Brooks’ novel (unread by me) told the story of a global zombie outbreak through a collection of individual accounts, and featured biting social commentary that was critical of the US (and other governments) for their response to the outbreak. 

Almost none of that remains in this film version, which seems to have taken the title and general premise (a global overview of zombie outbreak) and run off with it. Part of that was necessary, one presumes, because of the participation of producer-star Brad Pitt and a $150 million budget (which escalated to $200 million) that demands a more traditional approach.

With Pitt starring, as former UN analyst Gerry Lane, World War Z wasn’t going to be a multi-narrative ensemble. Instead, to achieve the global perspective, we follow Pitt’s Lane from the US, to South Korea, to Jerusalem, to Wales in the midst of the outbreak to search for a cure. With air travel just a little more difficult under these circumstances, we don’t expect anyone to be doing much flying; the film is at its weakest when trying to rationalize getting Gerry from point A to point B. 

Other elements work better. The dynamite opening sequence – which wastes no time immersing Philadelphia in a zombie outbreak – is a terrifying portrayal of mass hysteria. Because of Lane’s connections, his family (including wife Karin, played by Mireille Enos), finds themselves aboard a U.S. Navy vessel. But the ride isn’t free: to ensure his family’s safety, Gerry will have to single-handedly cure the undead pandemic. 

This takes him around the world in search of answers, beginning with the potential source in South Korea. Political commentary – such as North Korea managing the outbreak by removing its citizens’ teeth, and a giant wall erected between Israel and Palestine keeping the peace (at least, until the zombies climb it) – is prevalent but never an emphasis. 

In his race around the globe, Gerry meets characters played by David Morse, James Badge Dale, Ludi Boeken, and Peter Capaldi. Few cast members get much screen time besides Pitt, but Daniella Kertesz makes a strong impression as an Israeli soldier named Segen.

The global perspective of the first two-thirds of the film is what really sets World War Z apart from the usual zombie fare (see The Walking Dead), which typically focuses on a small group of survivors combating a zombie menace, isolated from the rest of the world. It’s fascinating, if never terribly involving in traditional terms, watching how different governments and official agencies deal with the threat. 

But the climactic sequence, featuring a scramble through a zombie-infested WHO building in search of a potential cure, is where the film really pays off in familiar zombie movie terms. This segment – which goes on for ages, and was the result of reshoots – is easily the best-directed sequence that WWZ has to offer, generating some genuine tension and suspense and finally making full use of the zombie terror. 

Speaking of reshoots, you may notice Matthew Fox as the helicopter pilot who initially rescues Gerry and family from the Newark rooftop, and wonder why such a recognizable face was recruited for such a tiny role. Fox originally featured in the film’s ending (warning: major spoilers at link), which was completely reshot, leaving his character all but excised from the finished film. 

The director of World War Z was Marc Forster, who previously made the excellent Monster’s Ball and (more recently) Quantum of Solace and Machine Gun Preacher. As with most movies of this stature, directorial vision is compromised, if not non-existent; Laura Holson’s excellent behind-the-scenes Vanity Fair article details how the director nearly lost control of his film. 

The screenplay passed through hands of J. Michael Straczynski (Changeling), Matthew Michael Carnahan (State of Play), Damon Lindelof (Prometheus) & Drew Goddard (Cloverfield), and an uncredited Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) on its way to fruition, which might explain some of the red herrings, loose ends, and other inconsistencies in the final product. 

In 3D, the film looks dark, fuzzy, and entirely sub-par, a result of post-production 3D conversion (they’re still converting films into 3D?) Catch it in 2D instead.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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