With our current crisis of zombie overproduction, it’s easy to lose sight of what made them so scary in the first place. These rotting husks are familiar as humans, but alien after having their humanity stripped away. Horror is most effective when its villains remain mysterious and unknowable, leaving the biggest scares to your own mind after tapping into your deepest fears. So let’s face it: zombies are pretty much known at this point. There may be variations on a theme—zombies, but they’re slow/they’re fast/they have feeeeeelings—but ultimately, it’s the same shtick.
Which puts World War Z in a rather awkward position from the onset;
not only is it the latest in a fatigued genre, but its PG-13 rating tells you not to worry, nothing too bad will happen. Add to the mix that it’s an adaptation of Max Brooks’s unadaptable and hero-less novel made into a Brad Pitt vehicle where he gets dropped into situations and can’t help but save the day all the time because he’s good at everything, and you have a movie with no clear reason to exist.
That’s not to say that it’s all bad. There are several scenes and enough genuinely tense moments to make it worth the price of admission. Though “doing something different” is itself becoming a cliché in zombie flicks, World War Z actually breaks new ground in considering whether something needs to be horror just because there are zombies in it, keeping some of the novel’s geopolitical and philosophical themes and desire to overcome rather than just survive (and in a world first, they finally use the word “zombie” to describe zombies!).
But tension never gives way to fear, and the attempts at heady dialogue never rise to the insight and cleverness of the source material.
With all of the deviations from the novel, perhaps the most glaring is that of Brad Pitt’s presence. In the original, various stories of how the world experienced the zombie were collected into a report that was censored by the government and leaked by its compiler, who is simply assembling an oral history and did not witness any of the events described. There are many narrators and many points of view, but the plots cleverly all build toward a single resolution, with the parallels and contrasts between the individuals contributing to the meta-plot of a world transformed.
So the filmmakers created Gerry Lane (Pitt), an intrepid, gun-toting, front-lines investigator to traverse the globe and see what’s what—who also leaves two daughters (one asthmatic) back home. Lane is fine as an observer bereft of his own character, but he’s just a bit too conveniently smart and prescient to be a fun action hero. He finds himself in some interesting jams, but he never really feels in danger, and too many of them are stories that are abandoned just as things get interesting (to call them “plot holes” would imply a unified plot, which there isn’t).
It’s a plot better suited to a miniseries than a movie, and interestingly, the best parts come when they disregard any obligation to the source material and start inventing shit,
like the entire scene at the WHO in Cardiff, which could have been its own movie. Big, loud, sometimes tense, and surprisingly funny (though perhaps unintentionally), World War Z isn’t bad by any stretch. And as blockbusters go, you can do a lot worse.
WORLD WAR Z | PG-13 | IN THEATERS NOW