Zombies just keep getting more and more dangerous. A few decades ago, when Day of the Dead was made, they were slow, lumbering bests that were nearly impervious to bullets, their only weakness being a blow to the head. They were transformed by Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later into fast-moving, rage-filled monsters so infectious that they could turn you into one of the “infected” in seconds. And now, they have the best (or, if you are a human trying to survive a zombie movie, worst) of both worlds. Brad Pitt’s action-thriller World War Z offers zombies that combine the speed and contagiousness of any modern-day “infected” with the near-invincibility of the Romero zombie. Add to that a bloodthirsty, hive mentality, and you have one of the most enthralling and terrifying renditions of everyone’s favorite brain-eating monster.
What makes World War Z different–a fresh experience in a culture somewhat over-saturated with zombie movies, books, TV shows and video games–is not just its zombies, but the nature of the story. This isn’t a story about a group of survivors struggling to survive the post-apocalypse in a world overrun by the walking dead. It’s a film about a man living the collapse of civilization and struggling to save the world from the zombies before it’s too late. The goal here goes beyond mere survival–this is a quest movie at heart, and that lends World War Z a sense of purpose and urgency that is lacking in many a similar horror flick.
With and all the running about from place to place and the constant threat of zombies, there’s not all that much time for character development. This means that Pitt’s backstory is inevitably a bit stale. He’s your generic thriller action hero, a man with a wife and two kids. He’s that dad who’s left his work behind to be family man, only to get sucked back into his violent past when faced with a new, serious threat–nothing we haven’t seen many times before. Still, for what it’s worth, the few scenes that exist between Pitt and his family, obligatory and perfunctory though they may be, are better written than might be expected. The movie doesn’t have a lot of time to build its protagonist up as a likable hero (it’s hardly a coincidence that I can’t recall the actual name of his character), but Pitt makes good use of what time he does have, managing to remain a compelling screen presence–which is good, because the film is rather single-minded in its focus on him. Few of the other characters last for more than a few scenes before they are either eaten by zombies or simply left behind as Pitt moves to the next stop on his quest to find a zombie cure. The one notable and very welcome exception is Danielle Kertesz’s Israeli soldier, who accompanies Pitt’s Gerry (there, that was his name!) on his mission. There is a real sort of camaraderie between the two that adds a much needed human element to all the destruction and mayhem.
World War Z is oddly bloodless for a zombie movie (in order to garner a more marketable PG-13 rating), but it is still fast-paced, thrilling, and, when it needs to be, scary. There’s a satisfying blend of the epic and the intimate–scenes in which zombies overrun entire cities, and ones in which they face our hero down in the claustrophobic confines of a hospital hallway. World War Z manages to cram in an admirable amount of zombie thrills without seeming too rushed, and even manages to pull off a decently clever ending (unlike the similar film I am Legend, which also featured a major movie star trying to find a cure to a terrifying virus). It deserves extra props for this, since ending a zombie movie on a satisfying note is a difficult task at best. It’s not a perfect movie, but it is a welcome one. It’s a disaster film, a high-stakes adventure/quest, and a zombie scare-fest rolled into a satisfyingly destruction-filled package.