Roger Corman once lamented that, when Jaws and Star Wars ushered in the age of the summer blockbuster in the 1970s, Hollywood started stealing all the B-picture movie ideas and remaking them with A-picture money. It’s taken the best part of half a century for Hollywood to catch up with the zombie horror genre and make an expensive summer movie out of it, but finally, here’s the Brad Pitt-starring, $175 million-plus World War Z.
Most of you reading this will probably know about World War Z’s production already. Based on the excellent novel by Max Brooks – the story of a zombie apocalypse as told by its survivors – the film adaptation caused a certain amount of controversy before a frame had even been shot.
Instead of going for a documentary feel, World War Z instead brings us glossy widescreen spectacle. Other than the title, little’s left of Brooks’ oral history, apart from a sense of global panic and glimpses of soldiers fending off hordes of the undead. While fans of the book digested that information, news emerged that the film was being delayed, that Damon Lindelof had been brought in to write a new final act, and that extensive reshoots were required in order to complete the final third. Naturally enough, some industry writers sensed a disaster in the offing. Did Lindelof and director Marc Forster manage to forge a decent film from this troubled production?
In a reassuringly brisk opening, we’re introduced to former UN operative Gerry Lane (Pitt), who’s quit his job in order to spend more time with his family – wife Karen (Mireille Enos) and his two young daughters – in Philadelphia. But while he cooks pancakes in his cosy apartment, a zombie apocalypse is gradually unfolding outside. And as the military loses its grip on city after city, Gerry’s drafted back into service to find the root of the outbreak.
For the opening half an hour, Forster wisely keeps his zombies on the story’s periphery. As Gerry attempts to get his loved ones to safety, we see the panic of a city spiralling into chaos, but not the cause. It’s only when the tension’s reached its peak that the undead begin to stream in – and as you’ve probably already gathered, these are the running, 28 Days Later sort of creature rather than the traditional, shuffling variety.
Whether you approve of this or not, World War Z’s zombies are imbued with palpable menace. All rolling eyes and snapping jaws, they literally throw themselves at their victims, headbutting their way through windscreens and pouring over high walls like lemmings. Where so many zombie movies have been forced into relatively small locations to save money, World War Z can afford to pull its camera back, showing us the kind of swarming nightmares that are seldom seen in the zombie genre – even Zack Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead remake couldn’t afford to stage sequences such as these.
Inevitably, the rules of box office economics mean that World War Z can’t afford to be an R-rated gut-muncher like its cheaper forebears, which is yet another aspect of the production that’s riled fans of the book. But what World War Z lacks in out-and-out bloodshed, it makes up for in scenes of city-wide destruction and creeping suspense: sensitive to sound, these zombies often have to be tiptoed around rather than fought head-on.
On his travels around the world, from rain-swept military bases in the South Pacific to fortress-like cities in the Middle East, Gerry Lane pays witness to all kinds of sprawling, often engrossing set-pieces. It’s in the contrasting of suspense and action-filled pay-offs that World War Z succeeds as a piece of popcorn entertainment.
Unfortunately, the drama that comes between these moments is less interesting, and it may be the fault of those rewrites that World War Z‘s tension rises and falls rather than builds to a climax. Dialogue is often mumbled and apparently incidental, and cast members whose names aren’t Brad Pitt are given little to do – poor Mireille Enos spends much of the film sitting on a boat, looking at her phone and sighing, while the great David Morse shows up for one Silence Of The Lambs-type scene and is never heard from again.
Make no mistake, this is Brad Pitt’s film, and he provides plenty of dependable Hollywood charisma, if not much in the way of outright fear; it could be argued that, if anything, he’s a little too stoic, where a more pronounced sense of panic would have added to the tension.
It’s also arguable that Forster allows his film to fall into a predictable rhythm all too quickly – the globetrotting investigations and subsequent action sequences give the film a decidedly episodic, televisual feel.
Placing these issues aside, World War Z still manages to be solidly entertaining. The visual effects are a definite level above the disappointing digital ghouls that brought down Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend, and there are individual sequences that are memorably eerie – mountains of zombies, piling up on one another in a horrible pyramid of flailing limbs, are but one striking image.
Even Lindelof’s final third works fairly well, though it’s telling that it takes place in a claustrophobic setting more typically seen in cheaper zombie movies than the wide open spaces seen before – proof, perhaps, that no matter how much money you throw at a zombie movie, the tried-and-tested genre staples still work the best.
World War Z isn’t the best film you’ll see in a multiplex this summer, but neither is it the disaster that some were predicting, or perhaps even hoping for. It isn’t the faithful, politically-charged adaptation of the book many readers wanted, but anyone willing to take the movie for what it is – essentially, a zombie action disaster flick – will find much to enjoy here.
World War Z is out in UK cinemas on the 21st June.
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