Around one minute into World War Z I sighed what was to be the first of of many, many sighs. The camera rested upon the slightly-flowing locks of Brad Pitt, playing former UN employee Gerry Lane, as he lies in bed with his wife Karin (Mireille Enos). Into their bedroom – a typically sun-dappled, dusty and warm-looking idyll that seems to only exist in movies – come their two little girls (Abigail Hargrove and Sterling Jerins), who excitedly jump on top of their parents and wake them up. A short while later Gerry cooks pancakes and all four take part in a round of cheeky, warm and playful banter before the girls are taken to school. The exterior of the house looks exactly as you’d expect it to. Shut your eyes now and try to picture it. Go on. Correct! One scene tells us that their life is, quite simply, perfect. But, while predictable, it’s not the clichéd suburban perfection that irritated me.
What irritated me was the realisation that I was watching yet another apocalypse-themed film whereby the tale is told through the eyes of an ‘ordinary’ family, as if we can only ever possibly begin to understand the seriousness of the end of the world and the end of humanity if a couple of kids and their parents are put in grave danger. It’s John Cusack and family in 2012. It’s Tom Cruise and family in War Of The Worlds. It’s maddeningly predictable and smacks of laziness. I knew then that even though the next hour and a half would be filled with an end-of-the-world threat that would see entire nations being wiped out, the expectation would be for me to care more about the constant peril of Brad Cruise and his photogenic family. Whatever, get on with it.
World War Z is a zombie film*. Well, it is a zombie film, but many zombie aficionados will once again froth at the mouth in disgust at the fact that the zombies in World War Z can run. Not only that, they can run fast. We’ve been here before, of course, with much fuss made over the fast and agile zombies in Zack Snyder’s 2004 re-make of Dawn Of The Dead. For what it’s worth I’m completely on the fence on this issue; I prefer the menace of the slow, lumbering undead of George A. Romero’s 1970s and 1980s zombie films: a zombie doesn’t have to be fast to be threatening (witness any of Romero’s films or any episode of The Walking Dead for evidence). But the best thing (in fact the only really good thing) about World War Z is the collection of scenes where the zombie swarm tears through a city faster than Usain Bolt. Semantics aside, the speed of the undead in this film is exciting.
The creatures are laying waste to humanity by feasting on live human flesh, as they tend to do, spreading their disease rapidly across the globe thanks to air travel (presumably budget airlines are at fault for this particular outbreak). After an initial escape from zombie-infested Philadelphia and Newark, Gerry and his family are rescued by the UN and taken to an offshore aircraft carrier which has been set up as a refuge and planning centre for key military and government personnel. Gerry is told to travel from one destination to another in order to investigate the origins of the outbreak. If he doesn’t, his family will lose the sanctuary of the vessel. While the story is generally about the cause of the outbreak and the attempt to find a solution, it really just exists so that Gerry can do battle with zombie hordes in a variety of locations worldwide. There may well be a couple of half-arsed attempts in the plot to identify why all of this has happened, or where the disease initially came from, but as is often the case there’s no great conviction or trust in the audience’s ability to handle something other than a light plot framework, from which various set pieces hang.
So Gerry, left with no choice, sets off on a kind of high pressure gap year. He visits an air force base in South Korea which is defended by special forces soldier Captain Speke (James Badge Dale). He stops by Jerusalem, where the Israeli government has managed to build walls strong enough to keep the zombies out (what is the story implying there, I wonder), and hooks up with Israeli soldier Segen (Daniella Kertesz). And he takes an eventful plane ride to Cardiff, of all places, where the World Health Organisation have a research facility. Obviously in all these exotic and not-so-exotic locations he must battle, outwit, outrun and kill a multitude of zombies while phoning home and keeping his hair suitably shiny. Dare I suggest it would have been more exciting to see him negotiate Cardiff city centre on any given Saturday around midnight?
I have many, many issues with World War Z, but first of all: where’s the bloody gore? Where. Is. The. Bloody. Gore? This is a horror film without any horror. Having watched three seasons of The Walking Dead in the past year I found the close up battles with the zombies in World War Z completely unsatisfying. Where’s the decapitation? Where’s the crunching sound as skull meets hammer, spade or baseball bat? Where are the beautiful arcs of zombie blood, damnit? Perhaps director Marc Forster was too afraid of getting an 18 certificate, or perhaps he was ordered by Paramount to tone things down in order to attract a wider audience. Either way, it’s weak. If you’re making a film about zombies then you’re making a horror…and some gore is required, even if it’s just a bit of blood. World War Z feels disappointingly clean.
My second problem relates to the reactions of characters towards the events taking place. While there is widespread panic on the streets when the zombies attack – and this is quite exciting – at no point does any character politely enquire “What in the name of Elmer T. Fuck is going on?”. I mean, we can’t all be as composed as a Brad Pitt movie character, but if I suddenly came across tens of thousands of marauding, high speed zombies I have a feeling that’s the first question I’d ask once I’d finished soiling myself. The way the surviving humans accept this terror that is taking place in their world is laughable. Most seem to be happily shrugging it off. Worse things happen at sea, and all that.
The reactions towards ‘smaller’ events in the film are equally unfathomable. In Newark, for example, Gerry and family take shelter in a Mexican family’s apartment while the zombies decimate the streets below. The mother and father of this family are torn apart by zombies (though you don’t actually see this – meh) but their son manages to escape with Gerry and co. Not once in the subsequent scenes does anyone acknowledge the fact that the boy’s parents have just died, or the fact that he probably witnessed this and other gruesome dismemberments; the boy himself even seems quite happy, rather than showing any signs of trauma.
Where World War Z does succeed, as mentioned in the aside above, is with regard to the scenes that depict the frenzied zombie attacks. The first time we witness this, in Philadelphia, it’s very exciting. The zombies tear through the crowds of confused people, feasting on their flesh and knocking them flying with the sheer velocity and power of the combined attack. There is, understandably, chaos in the streets. It’s like watching a hundred thousand quarterback sackings taking place simultaneously. When the zombies finally get over the wall in Jerusalem (it’s in the trailer and on many of the poster designs so I’m not giving anything away, exactly), it’s equally well done, an impressive melee of fast cuts, close-ups and long wide shots.
Unfortunately, when the action moves to South Wales, the film loses all of its fizz abruptly. In the final half hour Gerry and Segen are holed up in a World Health Organisation building with a few surviving members of staff, an overly drawn out sequence in which they must find a way to get past a few zombies into a room full of pathogens. The lab / research facility / hospital setting has been used extensively before; in The Walking Dead there was time to explore all of the possibilities across a few episodes. In Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, which is perhaps the film that World War Z most closely resembles (albeit with a grander scale and a bigger budget…but with less invention), this kind of location is used but discarded quickly in order to keep the plot flowing quickly. It’s used in every second video game. Here, in a film with such a vast scope for the first 2/3 of its running time, it feels like a prolonged wet fart of an ending. It’s like watching a cheaply-made episode of 1970s and 1980s British TV sci-fi like Survivors, Day Of The Triffids and The Tripods, only with the addition of a major Hollywood name. A scene where a Welsh zombie lab technician repeatedly gasps through a window pane at Gerry was the final straw for me: an extended sigh finally morphed into a guffaw. It will come as little surprise to his many detractors that Damon Lindelof was supposedly brought in to re-write this entire third act after the movie had wrapped for the first time last year.
Given that rumours of re-shoots and surpassed budgets dogged the production, it’s perhaps unsurprising that parts of World War Z look far more sumptuous than others. It’s just a shame that this section lasts as long as it does. The ending also jars. Without giving anything away, it arrives suddenly, brings more questions than answers, and does nothing except set up a sequel (and indeed a sequel has just been confirmed by the studio).
Though the acting is unspectacular but just about adequate, all of the characters are one-dimensional stereotypes. Few are expanded upon past the bog-standard ‘This is X. This is X’s role in life, or job. Now watch X fulfil this role or job for 5, 10, 50 or 100 minutes’. Brad Pitt, an actor I admire a lot, is on auto-pilot here, particularly as the film reaches its disappointing climax. Brad running, Brad jumping, Brad staring meaningfully into the middle distance, looking forlorn when trying to contact his family, it’s all so dull and uninspiring. I was presumably supposed to care about the fate of the human race (and in particular Gerry and his kin) in this film, but by the end I wanted the zombies to win and gorge on absolutely everybody on screen. Sadly all my twisted hopes were dashed.
There are moments here that are exciting, for sure. Moments are simply not enough for me, though. Max Brooks’ original source material novel is apparently filled with satire and there are still echoes of it here (Jerusalem’s wall, a brief mention of a drastic North Korean idea to pull the teeth out of all citizens in order to stop the disease from spreading). But presumably everything else has been removed for fear of confusing people who just want to see running and shooting and hitting and hitting and shooting and running. World War Z is a very safe play, from the marquee name at the top of the bill downwards, and it looks as though too many writers have been involved during its protracted gestation, stripping the film of any real identity of its own. There isn’t even 10% of the invention and surprise contained within any of the Resident Evil games that I’ve played. Yet, perhaps worst of all, there is the fact that it’s a sanitized horror / action film where barely a single death is seen properly on screen. Due to the lack of bite, I’ll be passing on the sequel unless drastic changes are made.
Directed by: Marc Forster
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof, J. Michael Straczynski, based on the novel ‘World War Z’ by Max Brooks
Starring: Brad Pitt, Daniella Kertesz, Mireille Enos, Fana Mokoena
Running Time: 116 Minutes