From the moment I heard about a World War Z movie I was beside myself with enthusiasm and anticipation. That was all destroyed when I saw the first trailer for the 2013 movie. I'm a fan of Max Brooks World War Z novel, and I had high hopes for a good movie but it was blatantly evident just from the teaser trailer that the movie would have little, if anything, to do with the book. I became dead set on boycotting the movie based on the trailer. Curiosity got the best of me and I went to see World War Z in theaters and I have to admit, I'm glad I swallowed my pride.
Life for former United Nations investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family seem content. News of a mysterious infection that is rapidly becoming a worldwide pandemic is everywhere, and it's not long before the Lane family sees the plague hit their Newark, New Jersey home. Infected people quickly become rampaging mindless zombies. After barely escaping the chaos, Gerry is persuaded by the UN Deputy Secretary-General to go on a mission to investigate the disease in exchange for keeping Gerry's family safe. What follows is a perilous trek around the world where Gerry must brave horrific dangers and long odds to find answers before the entire world's human civilization falls.
Max Brooks' novel reads like a non-fiction book. It's a series of oral interviews conducted by an agent of the UN Postwar Commission with people who have interesting personal stories about the global zombie war (World War Z) and gives a broad overview of the fictional event that nearly wiped out humanity. If I were in charge of the world, World War Z would be a sort of mockumentary with interviews and footage from the zombie war. District 9 did something like this and it was fantastic! Had World War Z been structured similarly, the movie would probably have appeased a lot more fans.
While World War Z is absolutely a zombie movie, it doesn't revolve specifically around the zombies being gross and killing people. That is present and there is plenty of it, but the movie focuses primarily on the outbreak and public panic. There's a crisis and people panic and there are innumerable complications that arise from it; stampeding panicked mobs, traffic jams, looting stores for medicines and emergency supplies, people so on edge that they accidentally kill each other for fear that someone might be a zombie, etc. This is played out really well; it's actually more unsettling to watch society collapse under insane panic than it is to see a twitchy, screeching zombie tackle someone to the ground and bite into them.
Fans of blood and gore horror movies will probably be a bit disappointed with World War Z; there is hardly any blood and gore in the movie. Generally zombie movies will focus a lot on the violence and try to generate some kind of shock value from seeing limbs torn off or blood gush and splatter from wounds. Yes, I suppose that can be fun for some viewers, but again the zombie mayhem wasn't the primary focus in the movie. This easily could have achieved an R rating by focusing more on individuals resisting zombie attacks and the bloody conflict that would ensue, but the movie has a broader scope. Taking the time to focus on the open wounds of a few individuals would have detracted from the macro-level scale of the film. It also kept the film in the much more marketable rating of PG-13. Besides, zombie blood and gore effects are so simple to make that even low-budget independent films can pull it off easily. Having a zombie film without those sorts of effects and still manage to put audiences on edge suggests that the director, Marc Forster, did an excellent job.
I loved the mood of World War Z. It was remarkably tense. I've had several people say they haven't been so on edge during a film since they saw Ridley Scott's Alien movie. I have to agree! The movie focuses a lot on mood and atmosphere and amps up the tension substantially. Many contemporary horror movies don't focus enough on creating that sense of dread and palpable foreboding. Not only did World War Z do this, it did it very well! There's a scene where Gerry has to navigate through a building full of dormant zombies and the slightest stimulus will wake them. Every little sound is like a death sentence. That is what horror movies are supposed to be like and this movie achieves that sense of tension exquisitely.
The mood, setting, and tension are beautifully done, but the script and characters are kind of flimsy. The script does an excellent job of establishing the world setting and the "rules" for its particular brand of zombies. The story itself is pretty repetitive. Gerry arrives at a place that has the situation mostly under control, and then all hell breaks loose. He arrives somewhere else that is reasonably calm and contained, then things fall apart. It sticks to a fairly predictable pattern throughout the movie. The characters weren't developed in much detail. Sure, Brad Pitt plays his role well, but the character isn't very deep. His family members even less so. I wouldn't really have cared had his family died at the beginning of the movie. Gerry's wife seems to be present exclusively for the purpose of having Gerry call her between scenes to let her know he's still alive. Again, the movie is focusing primarily on the setting and atmosphere, but I think the overall quality of the film would have been improved if Gerry at least had been fleshed out more as a character.
The special effects were pretty impressive for the most part. Yes, there are scenes that are obviously achieved by CGI, but for the most part, it all looks pretty convincing. My favorite scene is in Jerusalem where countless hoards of zombies are trying to get over the large wall built around the city and they mindlessly pile on top of each other trying to chase a single target. The zombies actually pour into the city looking for all the world like a cascading river of bodies flooding the streets. What's more, the scene takes place during the day where nothing is left to the obscurity of darkness. It's incredible to watch and made me wish each shot would last a little longer so I could just watch and appreciate how amazing the movement and detail is.
If you are a fan of the World War Z book, you really should try to distance yourself from the book and just go watch the movie. It's pretty good on its own even if it has little to do with the book. The setting is remarkable, the tension is palpable, the visual effects are excellent and have made World War Z one of the most expensive zombie films to date. The story and characters are a bit weak, but most everything else in the movie is pretty solid. If you've read the book or even Brooks' The Zombie Survival Guide (both of which I recommend), you may notice some subtle references in the movie here and there. I think the World War Z movie will ultimately be accepted into the zombie movie cannon. I recommend seeing World War Z, but it can probably wait for a home video release; the cinematography is good, but I don't think it gains anything significant by being on a big screen.
Here's the trailer for World War Z so you can catch a brief shot of that cascading river of bodies scene:
What is your favorite zombie movie? Comment below and tell me why!