This movie adaptation of Max Brooks’s book of the same name really only takes the premise of a worldwide zombie pandemic and not much else. The film itself is a disparate mish-mash of a whole load of different genres; political thriller, zombie movie, horror flick, globetrotting spy story and it rolls many of the books characters all into a Brad Pitt shaped ball. Yet somehow, it works.
Pitt stars as Gerry Lane, a former UN envoy who is used to going into extremely dangerous situations, and gets dragged back into service after the undead start to take over. All this information is given to you in the first five minutes because that’s all the time it takes for things to kick off. And they do, in spectacular fashion. This isn’t your usual zombie apocalypse where things slowly but surely get creepier and creepier, where characters start to notice little signs of something strange starting to happen, or where the zombies slowly but surely start to outnumber the living. This is BAM! Zombies are here, right now. There’s a lot of them. And you better run.
The opening scenes of mass panic are hugely effective and really get the heart pumping as Gerry and his family struggle through the crowds trying to get to safety. It shows a world gone to Hell in the first fifteen minutes. The film does well to show just how you’d imagine the world would react to such an outbreak, with a standout scene in a shopping mall with two moments involving a police officer and the other with a showdown with a gunman in a pharmacy being highlights. These little moments of humanity really help the film.
When the film eventually settles down is when the cracks start to appear; the scenes with Gerry and his family are perfunctory at best, when all you really want to get back to is more zombie carnage. But thankfully it doesn’t take long. With Gerry flying all over the world to find answers and possibly a cure we’re treated to a variety of locales in which you don’t normally see zombies; a run down military base shrouded in fog for one. And when the zombies do arrive en masse, surging through the streets of Jerusalem in the films standout scene, charging after the living with not a care for themselves, knocking over buses, smashing their bodies into windows and walls to eat the juicy humans on the other side, they’re like a tidal wave of death, and their sheer speed and numbers is TERRIFYING.
Smartly, after so many scenes of mass hysteria the film doesn’t go over the top for the climax, culminating instead with a quieter but no less tense set piece that wrings maximum tension from it’s sparse surroundings. Much has been written about the troubled production of the film and how the ending was hastily rewritten. And while, yes, it is a little on the cheesy side it also works (Although I could have done without the Moses parallels).
A small criticism would be that the film feels very by the numbers, as the whole film could be summed up by ‘Brad Pitt goes here, finds a clue, zombies show up, he just escapes, repeat to end’ which makes it feel very much like a video game. But you’ll forgive it as whenever the zombies do show up, those scenes are too exciting to care. Another minor complaint is that despite being a 15 rated film, there’s nothing here that looks particularly worthy of the rating. It’s a zombie film with zero gore or gruesome scenes. I should point out that it doesn’t need them, the film works fine as it is, but certain moments do feel as though they’ve been watered down a touch and feels more like a 12A film than a 15. And at a few points (although not many), the CG joins detract from the spectacle, but not enough to spoil the enjoyment of seeing millions of zombies attacking cities.
Fans of the book (myself included) might feel a little short changed but the film is scary when it wants to be, tense as hell in parts, and hugely ambitious in its scale combining elements of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (global pandemic) with the crazy zombie carnage of Zack Synder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. World War Z does more right than wrong.