Back in 2003, Max Brooks helped to kick-start the current zombie craze with The Zombie Survival Guide, a tongue-in-cheek book detailing your best chances for survival when dealing with the living dead. Three years later Brooks expanded the scope of The Zombie Survival Guide considerably with World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, a compelling pseudo-oral...read more
Back in 2003, Max Brooks helped to kick-start the current zombie craze with The Zombie Survival Guide, a tongue-in-cheek book detailing your best chances for survival when dealing with the living dead. Three years later Brooks expanded the scope of The Zombie Survival Guide considerably with World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, a compelling pseudo-oral history of the zombie apocalypse as told through the eyes of the people who had witnessed it firsthand. It was a smart, tense, and inventive piece of socio-political commentary served up in the guise of an apocalyptic zombie epic. It was the kind of book that proved you needn’t let your brain rot to enjoy a story about walking corpses waging war on humanity. As expected, it wasn’t long before a feature film version of the story was in the works, and the result is Marc Forster’s World War Z, a frantic zombie opus that strips away all the nuance of its innovative source material in favor of sheer cinematic spectacle.
Retired U.N. investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family are sitting in what appears to be a typical Philadelphia traffic jam when helicopters began to circle ominously overhead, and an explosion throws the city into panic. In the blink of an eye, the streets are consumed by chaos. When Gerry learns that the catalyst for the turmoil is a highly contagious virus that transforms those who contract it into rampaging maniacs, and that legions of the infected are growing on all continents, he agrees to join his former colleagues in discovering the source of the rampant plague so that his wife and two daughters will be guaranteed safety aboard a UN fleet in the Atlantic Ocean. Upon tracing a crucial e-mail to a U.S. military base in South Korea, Gerry learns that the infection has spread more rapidly than anyone realizes. Although a subsequent trip to Jerusalem, where the government has constructed a massive wall to keep the public safe, initially offers hope that the growing horde can be kept at bay, an unexpected breach sends Gerry back into the sky in search of patient zero. Just when Gerry thinks he’s traced the origins of the virus, however, the unthinkable happens. Subsequently stranded in Cardiff with a fearless Israeli soldier, Gerry quickly makes his way to a World Health Organization outpost where the few remaining scientists have hit a dead end in their search for a cure. But the struggle is far from over, and after recalling an unusual scene witnessed in Jerusalem, Gerry prepares to make a leap of faith that could prevent the downfall of humanity.
Although a pale imitation of Brooks’ celebrated source material, the truth is that, for at least the first hour or so, Forster’s film is one of the most sweeping and ambitious zombie epics ever to hit the big screen. Working with a budget that would make George A. Romero blue-green with envy, Forster and writers Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, J. Michael Straczynski, and Damon Lindelof plunge us headlong into a world in which social norms have been violently ripped away in mankind’s desperate fight for survival. It’s a frightening depiction of our downfall made believable by the film’s massive scope and Forster’s competent direction, though it isn’t long before the cracks in this thin veneer begin to show -- most notably in the inexplicable survival of a young boy whose family the Lane’s sought shelter with while attempting to reach the top of an inner-city apartment building. Not only is the spatial logic of the boy’s escape non-existent, but the kid never even factors into the story later on, which may have at least warranted some amount of forgiveness for the sloppy oversight. It’s a bad omen when four established writers can’t come up with a logical scenario for a young boy to escape the zombie horde, and while the filmmakers fortunately never again resort to this sort of hackery, the rest of the film consists largely of Gerry and company fleeing from one scene of zombie mayhem to the next.
Depending on your tolerance for rotting corpses with the speed and agility of Olympic sprinters, those scenes of mayhem are fairly exhilarating, too. The fault in World War Z certainly isn’t poor direction or acting (Pitt is a likable lead, and we instinctively want to cheer for him as he willingly puts himself in harm’s way to protect his family), but the fact that, despite being gifted such rich, thematically complex source material, the filmmakers embraced nearly ever cliché in the zombie mythos -- the family in peril, the frantic search for the cure, the bite victim who may or may not turn -- in a shameless summer cash grab. No doubt they’ll enjoy a hearty take as well since World War Z essentially amounts to a string of competently executed (and occasionally exciting) set pieces. Forster is obviously a director who knows his craft, and here he’s surrounded by artists with the talent to make his vision convincing. In their quieter moments, his chattering flesh-eaters even possess a distinctive creep factor as well. In short, Forster’s World War Z is the epitome of everything Max Brooks so brilliantly subverted in his book of the same name. In that respect it’s a travesty. But the producers obviously believe that carnage sells more popcorn than social commentary, so until we get the remake Brooks’ source material so richly deserves, it’s a travesty best served with extra butter and a large Pepsi.