‘…not really a zombie movie, or even a horror movie. It’s a disaster movie that happens to have zombies in it’ – MacDara Conroy on World War Z There’s no way a film of World War Z was ever going to work. The subtitle of the book makes that pretty clear: an ‘oral history of the zombie war’ would never make it as a straight adaptation. So in that light it’s completely understandable that the Hollywood version discards the docu-drama trappings of Max Brooks’ novel for a more immediate, as-it-happens rather than how-it-happened narrative. Instead of pseudo-reportage building a picture of a world ravaged by 10 years of contagion and conflict, you get your modern disaster movie scenario, where the main protagonist proceeds from set piece to set piece, overcoming ridiculous odds along the way. And whereas the book’s narrator is a United Nations agent collecting oral testimony from people affected by the global travesty – a believable job for a UN staffer – the film’s equivalent, Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), is a MacGyver-esque jack of all trades, the kind of one-man special forces unit that simply doesn’t exist in real life. Anyone expecting a film of the novel – which has its rabid fans – will doubtless be disappointed.
So, too, will anyone expecting a zombie movie. Despite the title, and the repeated use of the ‘Z’ word throughout (which deserves some credit; it’s not up its own arse trying desperately to avoid the obvious, like some popular films or TV shows I could mention), World War Z is not really a zombie movie, or even a horror movie. It’s a disaster movie that happens to have zombies in it. It’s important to make that distinction, as it’s got nothing on the still-cutting satire and scares of George Romero’s original Dead trilogy, nor the in-your-face blood and guts of 28 Days/Weeks Later or The Walking Dead, which it’s clearly styled after. The pacy first half hour, which rattles through the litany of disaster flick clichés – the hero with the key to saving the world, the ‘Ark’ refuge for survivors, etc – establishes the proper tone: this is summer blockbuster fare, not Horrorthon fodder for the gorehounds.
Not that it doesn’t have its moments. For starters, it’s better than the trailer would lead you to believe. That ridiculous tower of zombies scaling walls and overturning buses in an indistinguishable mass of ropey CGI limbs looks as silly as it did before, but it’s gratefully only a five-minute chunk in the middle. And the opening reel is tense and frantic, doing a mighty effective job of conveying the sheer disorientation that mass panic brings as the zombie outbreak spreads. It’s also fairly brutal: bodies, both human and otherwise, are thrown around and smashed like rag dolls with impunity. Yet at the same time it’s strangely neutered. Indeed, it’s almost entirely lacking in gore, which makes me wonder if there might be a harder cut waiting in the wings for the Blu-ray release once the family-friendly US movie chains are satisfied (it’s got the stupidly mild rating of PG-13 over there).
The relentless globetrotting action slows in the final reel, which transports our heroes to rural Wales, of all places, in a last ditch effort to save humanity. This is where the film really falters, swapping all that earlier spectacle for a stab at the mundane realism of modern British horror (which could be a consequence of budget restrains rather than by design; many reshoots and rewrites have this pegged as a ‘troubled production’). But it lacks that necessary paranoid bent, and allows boredom to set in by drawing things out far too long, and for so little payoff. Still, it’s refreshing for a Hollywood production to end on such a bittersweet note – even if it does handily set up the almost inevitable sequel.
How you enjoy the movie also depends on what you think of Brad Pitt, who has a suitably commanding presence but is admittedly far too clean cut a figure for a role that demands the type of grizzled rogue that Harrison Ford used to play so well. At least his character is established as a capable, resourceful individual, which makes his survival from scrape to scrape at least vaguely believable (if not entirely plausible) within the film’s internal logic. There’s still too much chance and happenstance, but at least he’s not John Cusack in 2012. It’s also worth mentioning that Pitt is the only recognisable star in a cast populated by American unknowns, the odd cameo (see if you can spot Lost’s Matthew Fox) and British and Irish TV stalwarts like The Thick Of It‘s Peter Capaldi and Love/Hate‘s Ruth Negga, the latter two piquing some interest in the underwhelming final minutes. But Pitt’s Gerry aside, the cast are mere window dressing. Even Gerry’s wife and children feel curiously tacked on, an encumbrance necessitated by the genre and/or market research; their subplots – especially one lifted wholesale from the Dead Rising video games – are threads left to dangle.
World War Z is a big dumb action movie that won’t leave with you, especially in its pointless 3D version (the production company logos and the opening credits are the only bits that make any real use of the format). But something that left with me was its casual disregard for human life – whether it’s crowds blown up or shot into, cars in traffics jams rammed and crushed, or grenades thrown into planes full of passengers. For me, this is the most believable aspect of the film. If the Prism programme scandal tells us anything, it’s that the US government doesn’t give a toss about its own citizen’s civil liberties, let alone those of us lowly foreigners. So in the event of a zombie apocalypse, it’s not a stretch to imagine the powers that be going ‘fuck it’ and blowing us all to smithereens. Conservation of resources and all that. World War Z touches on that fearsome aspect that the end of The Crazies remake makes pretty clear: we are all but statistics to the men with the big guns, and if we start to make their numbers look bad…