Zombies get A-List Treatment, Faster Pair of Legs
The zombie movie has been a staple throughout the history of film, its cinematic visions of the stiff undead constantly evolving in both looks and style. The zombie movie has also become rather recently a type of dooming summer apocalypse, mining monsters with a blood-thirsty bite capable of infecting millions, not just an unfortunate neighbor. World War Z is the latest, and maybe peak-hitting film of the current zombie cultural craze, a large, action heavy, and mostly enjoyable thriller stenciled onto the blockbuster slate.
I hypothesize its peak because this is a group of films that for its entirety has thrived in its niche genre, in small horror flicks and cult indies. It has now gone A-list. Brad Pitt, who both stars in and produces this film, represents a mountaintop moment, a megastar who usually carries movies, or at least publicity, to the pinnacle of their ability. This is both an exciting and disappointing proposition for the genre’s fans. Like an anti-establishment punk band that sells out once it finds fame, Pitt, who plays a former United Nations member, has a foreseeable, survivable future. Actor anonymity, like in the updated zombie flick Dawn of the Dead, provides a mysterious ambiguity to the fate of its characters making it impossible to latch onto a preconceived persona. Brad Pitt is a little more than anonymous.
World War Z, based loosely off the 2006 novel by Max Brooks, begins with video clips and newscasts of animals, dolphins, fish, and insects, moving in hordes, infected with some disease. “Rabies” says someone over the radio, but we know sooner or later the world will find out it’s much worse. It does seem like the masses have a vague expectancy for the end of the world though, especially in an early scene in Philadelphia when a large explosion erupts near city hall. Cars begin cramming the streets, and then people abruptly begin fleeing, chased after by a plague of hungry swarming zombies. Maybe it’s the sudden nature of it all, or too much Walking Dead on TV, but judging by people’s faces, this kind of invasion seems like a relatively plausible one.
Director Mark Forster is careful and intentional with his opening allusions. These zombies are a different breed of undead, sprinting and piling onto each other and their victims with animalistic characteristics. In three dimensions, Forster has more options in his scare bag, which tries to compensate for its PG-13 graphic nature, or lack thereof. The overhead sweeping shots of cities in flame paint a picture of destruction in less direct fashion but in equally mesmerizing display. In fact, the safest place for the surviving citizens is above or away from land, in the air or on the sea.
That’s where Pitt’s character Gerry stations his wife (Mireille Enos) and two daughters (Sterling Jerins and Abigail Hargrove), aboard a UN Command ship with other escapees. After avoiding the insidious plague in Philly and Newark, Gerry and his international expertise are required to find the source of the widespread infection and with heavy heart he leaves his family on the ship. His travels include visits to Korea where an imprisoned David Morse explains that Israel has yet to be infected. A trip to Jerusalem boasts a highly built wall and curious explanation as to why the Jewish population was more ready for a zombie apocalypse than the rest of the planet.
In mass infection like this one sometimes viscerally, cringingly shown from afar, finding the source seems nearly impossible. But this is a Brad Pitt vehicle and the answer, as he prophetically narrates over, is always somewhere in the cracks, with just enough flare to find an agreeable, probable solution. The narrow escapes pile up but the pacing leaves little time to question or contemplate the enormity of lives lost. Pitt, even in his axe-wielding form, continues to harness his fatherly presence, warmer than in Tree of Life, less fidgety than Moneyball. His golden locks stay relatively unharmed.
It’s difficult grabbing onto the first half of this film because the plague, like the action, spreads like a blanket. What separates this genre of apocalypse is the unique bonding and outwitting ability that group dynamics can achieve, opposed to the sizably unmatchable feats of Mother Nature, or like in This Is The End, a biblical Rapture. That’s why the end of the film, when the pacing slows, captures in gimmicky, frightening proportion the zombie film’s essence, balancing intimate team analytics with its worldwide chaos. Forster recreates a similar ethos to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later here, remembering that drama and suspense many times come from eerie silence and ragtag camaraderie.
If you can grab on, World War Z is a thumping ride with a considerable amount of pleasure. Flaws can be found, but in Forster’s eclectic rolodex of films like Monster’s Ball and Stranger Than Fiction, it’s his relationships, like the compassionate one Gerry builds with a wounded marine (Daniella Kertesz), that push his stories deeper. After all, part of the cure to fighting zombies is finding your humanity first.