These are the good days for zombies. They’re getting big pictures and Barclay’s budgets. In World War Z, they have several nice cameos: There’s one zombie woman seething behind plate glass who had a no-decision with the great monster in Alien; and there’s another who has a cute, teeth-chattering hunger pang that’s a show-stopper (so it’s repeated). These zombies have costumes and they’re getting direction. The writers have added to their legendary repertoire: Whereas the zombies lurch and moan at first, when they close in for the kill they come as loud as Apaches and as hard as Usain Bolt.
These zombies are getting per diems, and it’s pretty clear the Screen Actors Guild has signed them up. Why not? Decades ago, in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) the LD were friends of George’s volunteering on a $114,000 picture. But now, World War Z has cost over $200 million. It has a superstar and some clever script concepts. The zombies rock, while Brad Pitt rolls with all his screen-time but seems to know he’s script-deprived. So let the zombies make hay while they can. Brad could tell them that they have serious competition: the big stars with $20 million signing bonuses and major back-end participation who are also script-deprived and who go through a lot of movies like zombies. But our zombies here have an unfair advantage: They are all up-front and show-me-the-decay!
Moreover, Z has guts and energy. It starts its mayhem early and it never lets up. The Lanes live in Philadelphia on what looks like a fat pension: You see, Gerry ran interference for the U.N. for years, but now he wants family time. Family is two daughters and Mireille Enos as his wife with a plucky smile that says, I know I have nothing to do in this movie but be plucky, but who knew me before? The Lanes have an idyllic existence bar one thing: the 3D virus has got into their home. They can’t have a pancake breakfast (Dad cooks) without blurry figures in the deep foreground of every shot. No matter, in just a few minutes they’re in the car, stuck in a Philly traffic jam, and the zombies hit.
There’s no concession to explanation, let alone motivation. If you’re doing a zombie film, producer Pitt seems to have decided, get them on screen early. So here they come, with a toxicity so great and a bite so fierce they can turn an ordinary person into a zombie in just eleven seconds. Perhaps it’s just happening in America? No, soon we hear it’s taking place all over the world. This could be a daylong world war. Hell, it could get done in 116 minutes with a PG-13 rating.
The battle of Philadelphia is chaotic. You feel the threat but never know the logistics, and it’s thoroughly frightening in a decent, play-by-the rules kind of way. Before we know it, the Lanes are helicoptered off the roof of a building at dawn, with zombies hanging on as if they want the last flight out of Saigon, because Brad is the only man in the world who can deal with this problem. That’s a clever decision: He is a co-producer on this film, and he needs a happy ending.
I won’t say more about what’s happening with the zombies, because you wouldn’t understand it if I labored over a couple of paragraphs. If you have a rattlesnake in your bed, you don’t want a lecture on rattler behavior, you want a machete and you need to move. Z moves—it goes to D.C., a carrier out at sea, Korea, Jerusalem (I may have left out somewhere), and Cardiff. That’s Cardiff, Wales, and I can’t recall the last time a movie had its climax there—was it Tiger Bay, with Hayley Mills? In which case I think Brad missed one trick by not having Shirley Bassey (Cardiff’s own) to sing a pro-freedom anthem at the end. Never mind, Brad was evidently busy.
The film is quite content to deliver fun and gotchas, and it never bothers to examine the metaphor of zombieism—forget that when you’ve got a really clever way out of the disaster. The script is by Matthew Michael Carnahan (he wrote The Kingdom and State of Play) and Drew Goddard (producer on "Alias" and "Lost"), and its founding principle is don’t talk when things can happen. The director is Marc Forster who, you may recall, made a modest, unexpectedly touching drama, Monster’s Ball, with Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton (cost: $4 million) a dozen years ago. That was a real movie, and Forster is going to need some heavy duty serum to get through a project like Z without remembering the earlier film. But money can buy a lot of forgetting.
While a zombie’s bite is very dangerous, sequelitis may be more damaging.
Meanwhile, Forster can shoot good shit. There’s an attack on the walled city of Jerusalem that is a knock-out and which suggests that Forster has done his homework on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the film that grasped the threat of zombieism long before the German people took der Koolade. The suspense is old-fashioned. You feel it building; you know how they’re doing it. But the energy and the visual invention carry the worst skeptic along. This is a very entertaining film on which Brad has an outside chance of getting his money back. There are also words at the end portentous enough to suggest that while a zombie’s bite is very dangerous, sequelitis may be more damaging. I have a feeling that the only family time Brad’s Gerry Lane can expect is on a mobile phone.
Brad leaves it all out there on the field, and for a man his age (50 later this year) and with his domestic worries, you have to admire the commitment. Still, that old moneyball Brad has his head screwed on, so he knows that Z is a chance for a team of striking supporting roles: Daniella Kertesz is very winning as an Israeli soldier; James Badge Dale as part of a doomed SEAL team is one tough, posturing dude; David Morse has a broody scene as a disillusioned CIA man; Fana Mokoena seems to be in charge of the war effort; Ludi Boeken is a literate voice of wisdom in Jerusalem—if a zombie could vote he’d put an X on this guy’s name; and Peter Capaldi is anguished as a World Health Organization worker in Cardiff. Every ten minutes or so we get one of these add-ons so Mireille Enos can rest her plucky smile—it looks very tiring.
There’s a huge amount of CGI, and some of us know that that is the most scary form of zombieism in these films. I don’t think it’s got to Brad yet. He seems awake and giving 110 percent. Still, I’d keep an eye on him. If Z gets to be a franchise, he could soon look as blank but frenzied as his good wife. Those are early signs of Z. It’s all over pro sports already.
David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic.