'World War Z' reaction: A zombie apocalypse film that forgets its zombies


The action starts almost immediately and brutally in the new movie World War Z. Warnings on the TV news of an escalating crisis are the backdrop to domesticity as former United Nations researcher Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) packs up his wife (Mirielle Enos, The Killing) and two young daughters on a normal errand into Philadelphia.

That's when all hell breaks loose in the most expensive zombie movie ever made. 

Directed by Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace) and produced by Pitt, the $200 million film launches fast when Gerry and his family get stuck in a traffic jam that gives way to an explosion, chaos, screaming masses of people running away from pursuing masses of, you guessed it, zombies. But these are not just any kind of zombies. Aside from when they're in a dormant state, these monsters are fast-moving and swarm like insects.

As he watches a major American city starts to crumble, the ever-investigative Lane counts the eight seconds between a zombie bite, the victim's death and their violent rebirth into a newborn, infectious "Zack."

The Lane family escapes in an absconded R.V. and Gerry radios into his old boss Thierry (Fana Mokoena), pronounced "Terry," to get the lowdown on the situation. Of course he is pulled back into action and sent on a mission around the globe -- to South Korea, Israel, Wales, Nova Scotia -- to find the source of the zombie virus, and hopefully discover the roots of a cure. Meanwhile, his family is supposed to be under the protection of what's left of the government aboard a military aircraft carrier.

Loosely adapted from Max Brooks' 2006 book on the oral history of the zombie apocalypse, the opening scene of the globetrotting zombie pandemic movie both exemplifies what I really enjoyed about the movie while also underscoring its big problems.

Adapting Brooks story, set after the zombie war, is a difficult task. The book allowed characters to be reflective while relaying stories of wartime carnage. The movie never quite fits that same model, but Pitt works as something of a human condition detective; he's smart, observant and likable. And when the movie succeeds, such as in the escape from the New Jersey apartment building early in the movie, it is intense and frightening.

In a move ripped right from Brooks' own Zombie Survival Guide, Gerry wraps his arms in magazines and duct tape to protect from bites then crafts a makeshift bayonet. He then sets outs through the stairwells of the powerless building with his wife and kids, inching around corners quietly, heading to the roof for an aerial escape while trying not to attract the attention of pursuing zombies. Another cool action set piece involves Gerry's visit to a military base to see Patient Zero. After the scientist golden boy fails to live up to his promise, it is up to Gerry to figure out the next best hope for humanity -- which involves escaping an undead zone in the middle of the night.

But even during these scenes World War Z shares less genre DNA with George Romero's Night of the Living Dead or The Walking Dead, and feels more like an alternate take on viral-zombie/"living zombie" film 28 Days Later or as an action movie version of Contagion featuring the CGI cousins of the "vampires" from Will Smith's movie I Am Legend.

Evolution is necessary, but at times it is as if the filmmakers wanted to discard everything about modern zombies that we've come to know and love since Romero introduced us to them in 1968. In fact, for a movie that has a giant zombie "Z" in the title, World War Z misses a lot of marks expected within the genre.

And this isn't where I gripe about fast-vs-slow zombies. The running, jumping, swarming threat is a cool concept, but the audience rarely gets a chance to focus on individual ghouls.

Though there are a lot of parallels between how the world might fare during a superflu outbreak or a major disaster, and a zombie apocalypse -- parallels Brooks has spoken about frequently -- the terrifying thing about zombies is that the dead have come back to life. Though they may vaguely resemble our deceased family members, friends and neighbors, these "others" are mindless and have a hankering hunger for humans. Because of the global scale, and the fast-acting viral element to the creatures in the film, World War Z lacks the the personal trauma of seeing someone you know come back as a monster, or the gutwrenching decision of doing something about it.

Plus, because they are really just infected humans -- and only kinda sorta reanimated corpses -- the movie never shines in the creature makeup department. In an entertainment landscape when special effects guru Greg Nicotero delivers captivating walkers on a weekly basis, on an albeit healthy TV budget on The Walking Dead, the bar was already set pretty high for World War Z. But even before The Walking Dead, fans of the genre have come to expect blood, guts or some sort of signature zombie look; the most WWZ offers is a partially decayed ghoul with bugged-out eyes who clicks his rotted teeth. (That partial decomposition is problematic because, since the plague has presumably spread so fast, how did a few of the recently converted dead have time to decay?)

Also, instead of reanimated corpses who devour the living, these guys need only a nibble to pass along their disease. Rather than viscera visuals and glorious gore, a highlight of zombie flicks, we only get PG-13-rated bite marks. Actually, this sanitized bloodless, gutless, goreless "horror" extends to a scene when a character loses a limb after getting bit. The camera never shows the rapid amputation or bloody stump, and instead stays out of the action.

And I dare you to name a favorite, or even slightly memorable, "zombie kill" from the movie.

Beyond problems it encounters within the zombie genre, WWZ has a lot of loose threads that are never explained. At one point Gerry has a near meltdown about where his family has been assigned while he is away, but we never get much of an explanation about what he had to fear -- in fact, we eventually see that they are chilling out rather nicely. And after he has a eureka moment with the zombie plague (which inspires a far too leisurely, and painfully false, stroll through an infested area), the plot takes a giant leap forward without explaining how he managed to traverse much of the globe with no issues.

Likely due the film's well-documented reshoots -- which resulted in a new, "smaller" and far too soft finale for Pitt's character, as opposed to an epic showdown -- it actually seems like there are actors whose entire subplots were cut. Enos never has much to do, and most of her acting happens with a satellite phone; her main purpose is to be wringing her hands and making calls at the worst possible times. Meanwhile Matthew Fox from Lost is reduced to a famous background character who never even gets a name (At least the underused James Badge Dale and David Morse speak a few lines of dialogue).

Brad Pitt said some time back that he wanted World War Z to be a Jason Bourne-style series with a "grounded, gun-metal realism." In that regard he may have succeeded as the movie often feels big with fast, exciting set pieces. But if you're aiming for a zombie-rific horror flick that reminds you of Max Brooks' source material -- and exists on the same playing undead field as The Walking Dead or other classic zombie installments -- you might not want to sink your teeth into this WWZ.