Fast, furious and ferocious, “World War Z” proves there’s plenty of bite left in zombie cinema. With its megastar leading man, globe-spanning locations, state-of-the-art special effects and stratospheric budget, it’s the most ambitious, extravagant portrayal of holocaust horror to date.
On several scores it’s the old familiar story (mystery virus, social collapse, pitched battles with hideous, rotting, cannibal ghouls). It doesn’t feel like death warmed over, though. Leading man/producer Brad Pitt and director Marc Forster treat their disaster epic with sinister grandeur. Think “Zombie Dark Thirty.”
The source novel by Max Brooks applied a multicharacter, oral-history approach to the material, and the film makes brief nods toward that crowdsourced framework. It opens on a rapid-fire montage of heedless millions sleepwalking through their morning routines and watching TV drivel, while on the sidelines, Mother Nature goes about her carnivorous business. There’s something unsettling yet apt about seeing video of “The Real Housewives of Miami” intercut with clips of snarling hyenas.
Once the screaming and stampeding starts, a number of minor characters enter, have a brief story arc, and exit, usually in pieces. There are swift, almost subliminal, shots of strangers gazing in disbelief at the unthinkable as the fast-moving hordes swarm like insects.
The pandemonium centers on Gerry Lane (Pitt), a former U.N. troubleshooter who has greatness thrust upon him when he is sent around the world to discover the pandemic’s origin and seek a way to stop it. His character setup is heavy on fatherly devotion. He seems willing to risk his neck for planet Earth largely in order to keep wife, Karen (Mireille Enos), and their two daughters safe in military quarantine. “Daddy, what’s martial law?” asks their youngest.
Gerry’s an inventive survivalist, fashioning anti-bite armor out of thick magazines and duct tape. But when hordes of flesh-eaters pitch themselves at him teeth-first, he’s given to panicky improvisation. His escape route from his initial undead encounter in Philadelphia almost gets his family killed. And his response to a ravening mob of zombies on a jetliner is near-suicidal. His impulsive choices keep Gerry credible as a flawed hero, and foreshadow the finale, in which he takes an urgent life-or-death gamble.
This was a famously troubled production, with last-minute rewrites and protracted re-shoots. The seams show. Matthew Fox, near the top in the cast credits, appears for perhaps 5 seconds. An international team of supporting players including Peter Capaldi, David Morse and Moritz Bleibtreu fares better. Morse, as a renegade CIA man, has a darkly funny scene explaining why surviving in North Korea is like pulling teeth. Playing a medical researcher who joins Pitt on his frequent-flyer travels, Elyes Gabel makes a colorful impression and scores the film’s biggest, grimmest laugh.
Director Forster, whose frenetic editing style drew sharp criticism on the James Bond film “Quantum of Solace,” still favors hummingbird pacing over carefully constructed suspense. The score by Marco Beltrami and British rockers Muse effectively hammers home the nonstop action beats.
Forster restrains his ADHD tendencies in the finale, a long sequence of intimate, compressed dread. He gives Pitt space to put his character’s anguish on display as a single, growling, tooth-snapping horror awaits him on the other side of a glass wall. Switching the focus from spectacular aerial views and epic set pieces to a one-on-one confrontation in a small, contained location reverses the standard blockbuster formula of ever-escalating catastrophes, but it’s a good choice.
“World War Z” may drag a foot during slower sections. It flirts with pretentiousness, and the ending is unduly abrupt. But on the level of pure sensation, injecting icy distilled fear to the nervous system, it’s smashingly effective.