Review – World War Z

Zombie cinema has come an awful long way from the no-budget claustrophobia of Night Of The Living Dead to this globe-trotting action horror that’s as epic in scale as it is in expense.

World War Z aims to be the last word in zombie-geddon, but in sacrificing character for spectacle World War Z aims to be the last word in zombie-geddon, but in sacrificing character for spectacle it ends up lacking the bite of the genre’s true classics

World War Z aims to be the last word in zombie-geddon, but in sacrificing character for spectacle World War Z aims to be the last word in zombie-geddon, but in sacrificing character for spectacle it ends up lacking the bite of the genre’s true classics

Once regarded as little more than a niche genre presided over by George A Romero, the zombie flick was reanimated for modern audiences by Danny Boyle in his 2002 horror classic 28 Days Later and since then has lurched its way into the mainstream, to the extent that even TV has embraced it in the form of the hugely popular cable show The Walking Dead, based on the comic book of the same name.

While the undead were doing their thing on the big screen, Max Brooks’ 2006 novel World War Z took a wholly new and plausible approach by presenting itself as an oral history of a 10-year global zombie war; a collection of personal accounts compiled by a United Nations agent examining the various geo-political, religious and environmental changes that occurred as a result.

Fleeing the initial zombie outbreak in World War Z

Fleeing the initial zombie outbreak in World War Z

Adapting a book with World War Z‘s particular structure was always going to be tough, but it’s nevertheless surprising just how fast and loose the filmmakers have played with the source material, to the extent that virtually the only thing connecting the two is the title.

The novel’s only common thread is its narrator, so it makes sense the driving force for the movie is former UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), who’s portrayed as a loving father to two girls and husband to Karin (Mireille Enos), presumably to remind both us and him what he’s fighting to save when it all goes down.

Devastation-porn in World War Z

Devastation-porn in World War Z

And boy does it all go down right from the first few minutes when, sitting in heavy traffic in downtown Philadelphia, they are suddenly and violently attacked by a growing horde of rabid zombies. The family barely make it to the roof of an apartment complex, where they are extracted in the nick of time by helicopter (whose complement includes a blink and you’ll miss him Matthew Fox) to a US Navy vessel, where they discover the terrifying scale of the worldwide pandemic. Told that he and his family will be forcibly evacuated off the ship unless he co-operates, Gerry reluctantly agrees to join the needle in a haystack search for Patient Zero, starting at a US military base in South Korea. From there, Gerry travels to Jerusalem and (randomly) Cardiff in a race against time to find anything to give them an advantage against “Zeke”.

Karin (Mireille Enos) and husband Gerry (Brad Pitt) seek escape in World War Z

Karin (Mireille Enos) and husband Gerry (Brad Pitt) seek escape in World War Z

A general rule of previous zombie movies has been to suggest the disturbing degree of the outbreak through emergency radio broadcasts or fuzzy television pictures. Not so World War Z, which tries to live up to its hardcore title by wallowing in the devastation, be it the military bombing the hell out of a city or an anthill of zombies furiously piling on top of each other to traverse a massive wall the Israelis have constructed to supposedly keep the undead out. Before you have chance to catch your breath, though, Gerry’s off again on his whistle stop tour.

Going after "Zeke" in World War Z

Going after “Zeke” in World War Z

As the film progresses, however, the focus gradually narrows from CGI-heavy mass destruction and chaos to a relatively claustrophobic third act set within a laboratory, which was bolted on after the movie’s original ending was jettisoned by the studio and producer Pitt.

Gerry (Brad Pitt) and co in World War Z

Gerry (Brad Pitt) and co in World War Z

Although clearly financially motivated (a static indoor location is far cheaper than horrendously expensive reshoots on the scale of the rest of the film) and somewhat derivative of many a great horror movie that’s come before, director Marc Forster makes the best of what he’s given and does a solid enough job ratcheting up the tension, although this is dampened by one unintentionally humorous zombie’s endless teeth-clicking.

While Brooks’ episodic narrative gave the reader a thorough sense of each individual and their story, World War Z’s script doesn’t have time for such distractions as character. Despite his commendable efforts to get the thing onto the big screen, Pitt feels like the wrong fit for Gerry. An actor with more range would have better suited the material and given the audience a greater sense of the personal impact this unimaginable horror must be having. And with the exception of Daniellla Kertesz’s Israeli soldier, no-one else is given the chance to make any impact.

Probably the most memorable image of World War Z

Probably the most memorable image of World War Z

Watching World War Z, I couldn’t help having the feeling that it would have worked better as a cable TV mini-series. The famous Battle of Yonkers chapters aside, wherein US soldiers make an Alamo-style stand against tens of thousands of ghouls (which is missing from the film anyway), Brooks’ novel largely stayed away from massive spectacle, concentrating instead on ordinary men, women and children fighting for survival.

As fast-moving as the thousands of undead who swarm across the screen, World War Z aims to be the last word in zombie-geddon, but in sacrificing character for spectacle it ends up lacking the bite of the genre’s true classics.

Four Frames – Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

I’m proud to say that I’ve become an offical contributor to The Big Picture, the internationally-recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. Aimed at the enthusiastic film-goer at large, The Big Picture provides an original take on the cinematic experience. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from George A. Romero’s horror classic Night Of The Living Dead.

It’s perhaps fitting that in the year that saw the world descend into civil unrest, a micro-budget splatter movie in which the dead rise from the grave and usher in the apocalypse would redefine both the horror genre and contemporary cinema.

Night of the Living Dead

There’s horror before 1968’s epochal Night of the Living Dead and there’s what came after, such is the seismic impact that George A. Romero’s debut feature continues to have.

Chucking out the rulebook in true anti-establishment style, he found a unique and unorthodox way to envisage the tipping point society seemed to be inevitably careering towards at the time.

Night of the Living Dead

Romero monkeys about with the audience’s expectations from the film’s opening moment when siblings Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Steiner) visit their father’s grave. Our assumed hero Johnny latches onto his sister’s unease and, putting on his best Boris Karloff pokes fun saying: “They’re coming to get you Barbra!”

He continues to freak out an angry Barbra and observes a shambling figure seen earlier in long-shot drawing ever nearer. “Look! There’s one of them now!”

Night of the Living Dead

The unintended irony of this statement arrives with a jolt when the man (Bill Hinzman, who in basing his shuffling gait on Karloff in The Walking Dead proves that the old ways are sometimes the best) attacks Barbra. We presume Johnny will come to the rescue, but in fighting the ghoul (the word “zombie” is never uttered in the film) he falls and smacks his noggin on a headstone. Not so much the hero after all.

With our assumptions in tatters, all bets are off as Barbra flees to a farmhouse and is joined by Ben (Duane Jones), who doesn’t convince anyone, least of all himself when he shuts the growing horde of undead out (or imprisons them both, more to the point) and says “it’s alright”.

Night of the Living Dead

Not for nothing has Steiner’s Karloff impression become a defining moment in horror cinema. Romero, deciding that no-one else was going to do it passed the baton to himself by choosing to subvert an old icon, as if to say: “That’s then, this is now and you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Tellingly, it’s the one amusing moment in a film that, like its implacable army of the undead, relentlessly progresses towards a soul-shattering conclusion.