A feeling of paranoid nostalgia swept across me during a screening of World War Z. An hour into the movie, which I caught with my family at the Queen Ka’ahumanu Theater, someone in the audience coughed. This is not what you want to hear when the movie in question is a virus-oriented horror movie. It made me remember seeing Outbreak when I was in high school and, at the same theater, someone in the audience started hacking like Doc Holliday.
It made the audience laugh uneasily and caused me to shrink down in my seat and breathe through the inside of my t-shirt. Movies about viral outbreaks really are best seen in the theater, where you’re surrounded by strangers, sharing the same oxygen in a close proximity and can squirm in your seat, enjoying the movie and wondering who might have breathed into your popcorn.
World War Z deals with a zombie apocalypse, portrays the initial assault as the result of a highly contagious bite and shows a city swallowed up by the undead in a matter of minutes. The establishing scenes will remind movie buffs of similar sequences from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, Independence Day and 28 Days Later but their familiarity doesn’t diminish how well done they are.
The action begins right away and the film portrays the desperate attempt for survival of a family of four with an unceasing intensity that never lets up. You’ll clutch your seat rest as you witness Gerry Lane struggle to keep his wife and children one step ahead of all the carnage around him and discover the origin of the zombie-creating virus. What is especially unusual is that Lane is played by Brad Pitt, an actor you’d never expect to star in a lavish, globetrotting pulp thriller about rabid flesh munchers.
This won’t go down as one of the great zombie movies and doesn’t revitalize the genre the way Zombieland did a few years back. For all the state of the art effects, large-scale visions of worldwide destruction, and considerable star power of the lead, this isn’t trying to inflate the zombie movie with David Lean grandeur or trying to be anything more than a good time at the movies. It’s also not at all faithful to the source novel by Max Brooks. Its PG-13 violence won’t satisfy the Fangoria crowd and horror fans will detect no trace of the social commentary that resides in all of George A. Romero’s zombie films. Taken just for what it is–a scary, race-against-time action movie–it mostly works.
Pitt is both a big asset and somewhat distracting in the lead. He’s the biggest star in the movie by far, carries the film well enough and gives a sympathetic performance. He’s also too good for this kind of movie.
After The Tree of Life and Moneyball, watching him act against a teeth-clicking, eye-twitching zombie is like seeing Daniel Day-Lewis play Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter; any lesser, half-way decent actor could have played the role. The supporting actors are exceptionally good but this is Pitt’s show the whole way.
The movie’s biggest drawback is how uneven it is, as a solid start builds to a thrilling middle, only to have the tension deflated entirely by the third act. I won’t describe it, but the ending is a slow, underwhelming anti-climax, coming after an amazing passage set in Israel and a frightening zombie attack in a crowded airplane. Instead of momentum growing to a fantastic finish, the finale is a dud.
Despite the ample reports of a troubled production, the movie never looks like it was subject to re-writes or re-shoots. Like I Am Legend, it creates a fearful scenario and is dazzling most of the time. But then, like a zombie with stringy, rotted limbs, it just falls apart.
World War Z
★ ★ ★
Rated PG-13 / 116 Min.