“World War Z” may share the same name as the 2006 Max Brooks novel, but that’s where the similarities end. The novel is a thoughtful and complicated discussion of a global response to a highly contagious and deadly pathogen using zombies as an entertaining symbol. It is a vast, ambitious, and sprawling piece of survival fiction that features strong social commentary and a surprising amount of depth.
The film is a blockbuster zombie movie starring Brad Pitt. This isn’t to say it’s poorly done—quite the opposite, in fact. “World War Z,” the movie, is a thoroughly enjoyable addition to the genre featuring a breakneck pace, intriguing characters, and some exciting scenes of fresh zombie mayhem. It might have been hindered by its PG-13 rating, as the blood and gore usually found in zombie fiction is almost entirely absent.
Zombie movie fans might leave scratching their heads at off-screen violence, wondering how it is that cable television has more guts than Hollywood. But given the rumors surrounding the film—reportedly the last 40 minutes of film had to be reshot after the first edit due to poor quality—the finished product is unexpectedly coherent and complete.
Former UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) wakes up with his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) one idyllic Philadelphia morning and readies his family for school. In the background, we hear various news reports about a strange outbreak of rabies in other countries. Soon after, the family is sitting in traffic when all hell breaks loose. From here, the story is one chase scene after another, with little pause or reflection.
“World War Z” zombies are fast, army-ant-like, and not particularly interested in brains. These zombies are only interested in self-replication, which is a fresh look at a familiar movie monster. Given the ten seconds between bite to zombie, humanity really appears to be in dire straits, and the tension that this creates is built very well.
The most successful aspect of the film is the development of the pandemonium atmosphere in the cities of the world. The film jumps from scene to scene, from location to location, attempting to show the length and breadth of the outbreak and the local responses to each. Scenes in Korea and Israel are handled well, with a good mixture of exposition and chaos.
The scenes in Israel come closest to the book in terms of depth and social commentary, with the explanation of “the tenth man” being one of the only shout outs to fans of the novel. Israel is likely the most thrilling part of the film and those scenes alone are worth the ticket price.
Unfortunately, the worldwide view of a global crisis stops abruptly soon after the scenes in Israel. The scope of the film narrows to the protagonist, as he searches for a cure in the last act. These are the scenes that were likely reshot in an attempt to rein in the sweeping action and tightly wrap the story up in under two hours. The film leaps from giant set pieces and CGI to close-quarter zombie encounters. They are gripping in their own way, but the abrupt change in structure makes the film seem like it’s falling short of its initial aims.
“World War Z” hoped to be an encompassing look at a zombie outbreak on a worldwide scale, but didn’t take into account how wide the world actually is. The format of a star-driven, two-hour blockbuster doesn’t have enough space to confine something so large while telling a meaningful and affecting story. A miniseries might do a better job of covering the topics in the book and give a larger cast a chance at telling a powerful story, but it wouldn’t have the budget of a big Hollywood film, making the special effects budget dramatically smaller. It’s a tradeoff between either incredible visuals or unique storytelling.
Narrative issues aside, “World War Z” is still an effective and entertaining summer movie. Brad Pitt maintains his record of never giving a bad performance, and the fast pace of the film keeps the audience engrossed in the action throughout. Fans of the book may be disappointed—but should be heartened by the recent unabridged release of the audio book, featuring narrators like Martin Scorcese, Nathan Fillion and Simon Pegg, among a cavalcade of other great actors and directors. Both the film and the audio book make it a great summer for zombie fans.