‘World War Z’ packs impressive apocalyptic pyrotechnics

Brad Pitt stars in "World War Z."
June 30, 2013

There is not a subsection of society, it seems, that has not been exposed to a cinematic zombie infection.

Since 1920, when German director Robert Wiene introduced us to a sleepwalking murderer in "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," (and the actual word coined 12 years later with Victor Halperin's "White Zombie"), we have been deluged with the undead. Their most modern characteristics (awkward, ambling gait, a taste for flesh) were cemented by director George Romero in his classic "Night of the Living Dead" series. It wasn't until Danny Boyle's 2002 outbreak thriller "28 Days Later" that the concept was introduced of zippy zombies who launched into a full sprint once infected.

The latest and largest variation of the theme (one of about 15 films slated for this year alone), is “World War Z,” perhaps the most prestigious and far-reaching of the bunch. Featuring a Golden-Globe-nominated director, a Golden-Globe-nominated actress, the writer from “Lost,” and one of the most recognizable names in Hollywood today as its lead, “World War Z” is not intent on just telling you about a global viral outbreak; it plans to spin the globe and show you.

And you can fault the film for not sticking to its source material (it was based on a book by Max Brooks, son of Mel), or say it’s not gory enough for a zombie flick, but you cannot say it lacks in scope, for areas from New York to Jerusalem to South Korea are seen engulfed in swarm after swarm of sprinting, biting beasties who are on the hunt for human targets.

Having not read the book, I can only trust the interviews its author has given that say it shares only the title. But, having read the exhaustively detailed Vanity Fair article last month that attempted to sell the picture as a troubled disaster, I can easily refute that it’s nowhere near the incoherent, unmitigated mess the article would have you believe.

Brad Pitt stars as former U.N. investigator Gerry Lane, whose expertise in...something (purposely never made altogether clear) makes him the go-to guy in such a crisis. He’s left that life for one with his adorable family: his wife Karen (played by Mireille Enos) and two daughters. We first meet them in a Philly traffic jam, nonchalantly discussing their day as any normal family would, blissfully unaware of the torrent of chaos that is erupting far off in their rear-view mirror.

When Gerry receives a panicked call from his former boss in the middle of the madness, he soon realizes that things are far worse. It seems as though the planet is engulfed in a viral outbreak that turns folks to angry, undead, teeth-gnashing track stars in 12 seconds flat.

Gerry is to head a team to find a cure, which leads him to all parts of the globe and often straight into dens of angry virus victims. And that is where “World War Z” is at its strongest.

There are many moments that call into question just how in the hell Gerry could survive such situations, but Pitt’s sad eyes and pulse of humanity make him the perfect accidental hero despite his impeccable good looks. Director Marc Forster has been maligned by many for his contribution to the James Bond franchise, “Quantum of Solace,” for taking a glum, violent approach to the beloved superspy. I found that film to be gritty and harder than most Bond films, but fitting with the new direction the series was taking with Daniel Craig in the lead. In “Z,” he demonstrates just how adept he can be with action sequences, as it was not until after the first 20-30 minutes that I found I had pushed back the reclining seat of the theater and could finally lean in and breathe a bit more steadily.

And the film is filled with sequences that are staged equally as riveting, if not as expansive as the initial outbreak. As for the gore factor - an element many zombie fans now crave - it was never an impediment, as the tone felt more adult than your typical PG-13 action fare.

If there is fault to be found, it is in the final scenes that seem slapped onto the picture like a sticky note. But like watching any fireworks display, you have to make room for a few fizzles. And “World War Z” packs an impressive number of apocalyptic pyrotechnics during its runtime.