If Roland Emmerich made a zombie flick, it’d look something like World War Z, except with half the yummy brains. I don’t mean to denigrate Marc Forster’s approach. Seeing as horror directors have been wearing us down with variations of the same insular Night of the Living Dead (1968) knock-off for the past forty years, I feel it’s about time the living dead trope got the proper summer blockbuster treatment. After all, the very premise dictates a worldwide apocalypse, so I’m almost shocked we’ve had to wait this long to see it.
In fact, some will argue that World War Z comes too late, that whatever mainstream momentum AMC’s The Walking Dead garnered for the genre petered out over two seasons ago. Certainly, Forster’s troubled production would seem to indicate growing apprehension among Hollywood producers, or perhaps test audiences. However, I suspect that’s got more to do with the challenges inherent to adapting Max Brooks’ novel, which can best be described as a collection of fictional reports, diaries, and anecdotes that paint the backdrop against which every piece of zombie fiction takes place.
I, for one, would’ve loved a living dead version of Traffic (2000). World War Z opts instead to connect its largely independent storylines by way of a single, blandly heroic protagonist whose exact skills and expertise are kept vague so that he can do anything the plot requires. You’ll spend a fair amount of time wondering why the United Nations rely on Gerry to figure out every detail of the zombie plague when they could use his intel to coordinate multiple investigative teams. However, Brad Pitt brings so much charisma to the role you’re just as likely to shrug off the resulting plot holes and cheer as he travels the four corners of the world, switching sidekicks and, to some extent, genres with every location.
World War Z starts off like any other zombie flick, introducing Gerry as an everyman and then challenging his immediate survival skills through a series of claustrophobic set pieces. From the depiction of panicked survivors turning on each other to the last-ditch trek across ghoul-infested hallways, the opening act sprints through every prerequisite beat as if to demonstrate how little plot the genre typically delivers. I admire Forster’s economy of language, the way, for instance, he establishes how fast the virus spreads by juxtaposing a victim’s transformation with a nearby educational toy’s counting lesson. The bit pays off beautifully when our hero, unsure of whether he’s infected, quickly positions himself at the edge of a rooftop and whispers, “One, one thousand, two, one thousand…”
This Bourne-like level of resourcefulness provides a much needed constant as World War Z turns into a war thriller in South Korea, a big budget disaster movie in Israel, and finally a stealth video game in Wales. While pulse-pounding in its own right, the latter chapter feels a bit out of place, given Forster’s careful escalation in the previous hour and a half. I’m willing to bet the film’s original climax got overhauled late into the production, explaining why Matthew Fox’s name appears so prominently in the credits despite his having under twenty seconds of screen time. More to the point, this jarringly quiet wrap-up robs us of any sense of catharsis, making it difficult to celebrate Gerry’s achievement in the end, let alone the director’s.
It’s too bad because Forster does a solid job adapting the spirit of Brooks’ novel if perhaps not its distinctive absence of plot, filling the screen with sights the likes of which we’ve never seen in zombie cinema all the while hinting at a globe-spanning geopolitical shift. You see, it’s not just about creative digital set pieces like the horde of ghouls piling on top of one another to climb Israel’s barrier. World War Z has also got a satirical edge, expanding our vision of the undead apocalypse through quirky expository tidbits such as North Korea staving off the plague by pulling out every citizen’s teeth.
That’s usually what happens before a cinematic fad falls back into anonymity: desperate to milk the genre down to the last drop, creators start throwing every offbeat idea at the screen, breaking free of an all too tired formula and ironically gaining my interest again in the process. I’m not suggesting the likes of Forster’s World War Z or Jonathan Levine’s recent rom-zom-com Warm Bodies (2013) will save undead cinema, but these movies might keep its corpse walking about for a while longer.