Many consider Max Brooks to be a revolutionary in the zombie sub-genre. With his two books, The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, it seems that Brooks has re-imagined the “zombie apocalypse” scenario. Both books were commercial hits, so it was only a matter of time before one (if not both) would get the Hollywood treatment. World War Z made the punch. Funnily enough, it started it’s own war: a bidding war for the book’s rights between producers Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. You can guess who won. However, Pitt’s World War Z shares only one crucial thing in common with Brooks’ novel: the title. The rest, as Brooks puts it in a Comic-Con interview, is someone else’s story. With that said, how does World War Z (the movie) fare? The short answer: pretty good.
The story is relatively simple. It concerns itself with ex-UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) as he, and his family, are thrust into a sudden war with zombies. Because of Gerry’s convenient former profession, he makes a deal with the U.S. Navy to accompany a small group of men to locate the virus’ origin, thus ensuring his family’s safety aboard a Navy aircraft carrier. The rest of the movie is essentially Gerry’s pursuit of the enigmatic ‘patient zero,’ and all the characters he meets along the way. Simple, right?
Considering that this film has little to do with the book, and that I haven’t read the book, to compare the two would be unfair. The film’s biggest strength is the action, which, ironically, was the thing I was most skeptical about when the trailer debuted. There is nothing wrong with running zombies. With that said, seeing hoards of them trampling over each other, jumping 20 feet in the air, and forming globular masses is rather funny, and comes off as slapstick. Still, the action is tense, quick, and often relentless. There is a sequence in a lab, near the end of the film, where our hero and his group have to tiptoe past a room full of highly cautious flesh-eaters. It’s apprehensive as it is, but the absents of score makes it much more thrilling. But, with action comes pacing, and many critics are quick to condemn World War Z with pacing issues. While I admit it is unevenly timed; I see it as mimicking real life. Life is not consistently action-packed. Even Die Hard has moments where the action stops so that the story can breathe. Then, it revs up out of nowhere, much like real life. The problem derives not from the pacing but rather from our main hero.
The reason why World War Z is ‘pretty good’ and not ‘excellent’ is because of our main character or lack there of. Going back to Die Hard; the reason why nobody noticed the slow moments is because the writers took these opportunities to develop the character of John McClane. He confides with Sergeant Powell as one friend to another, and as a result we see who John McClane is as a human being. It makes us more invested in his fight. In World War Z, however, we never know who Gerry Lane is as a person, other than a family man. While the action is tense, never once did I care if Gerry lives or dies. I was more invested in the secondary characters. When the plot slows down, we should be given insight into Gerry’s plight and/or character. Perhaps his phone should have been working so that he could talk with his wife. At least that way we get to know him outside of just an archetype. Instead, the writers use these moments to push out expository dialogue about the war, which still wasn’t enough clarification to explain the inexplicable wall that Israel built. Midway into the film, Gerry meets an Israeli soldier named Segen. She should have been the Powell stand-in. Gerry should have talked to her about why he’s fighting, and why he’s persisting with this seemingly doomed mission. It was a missed opportunity.
Lastly, what about the zombies, the element that makes World War Z… World War Z? Aside from how they move, we are introduced to two more zombie gimmicks. Since running was a successful attempt at making zombies more threatening to an audience with a low attention span, in this film we have to make them even more threatening and scary. How do we do that? Well, we make them into ravenous monsters. Not only do they jump several feet in the air, they often run on all fours, pouncing on their victims only to tear them to shreds like hyenas attacking deer. They eat people like turkey vultures devouring their prey. It’s ridiculous! But that’s not enough. We need them to sound more threatening too. How do we do that? Let’s make them sound like velociraptors when they chase you, and when they’re just idly wandering around, let’s make them squeal like pigs in an abattoir. Yeah, that’ll make them scarier. Honestly, I didn’t mind this. At times its pretty creepy albeit entertaining. Apparently, the thought behind this tactic was to intentionally mirror the zombies alongside nature's most fearsome predators, thus making them more animalistic. It gives Snyder’s zombies something to aspire to.
Overall, I had a lot of fun with World War Z. The action is engaging, the zombies are pumped with the strongest of cinematic steroids, the makeup/gore is nice, and it’s an overall satisfying experience. The human element, though, should have been there, especially since Max Brooks based his book heavily on the films of George A. Romero. Since this ingredient is missing, I fear that World War Z will fall by the wayside, and won’t be as memorable or hard-hitting as earlier zombie films. It will rest beside the other generic genre films that came before it.