WELCOME TO THE AGE of the cinematic mash-up, in which a committee of screenwriters jam together elements of past movies into a Frankenstein-like digital effects-laden extravaganza. For Mark Forster’s middling zombie flick, see if you can name-check the influences. Right off the bat there’s a credit sequence that plays like a slower, more somber version of Zack Snyder’s Johnny Cash-driven intro to the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake. Then quick as a flash we’re in Contagion territory as a zombie infection sweeps across the globe and UN Emergency agent Brad Pitt is recruited to help find the root cause of the plague. But this isn’t grandpa George Romero’s shuffling take on the undead but rather 28 Days Later’s fast-moving horror show, where a single bite can turn you into a flesh-craving monster in 12 seconds flat. And so the remix goes on.
It’s not that Max Brooks’ source novel World War Z didn’t have an ambitiously serviceable (and fairly original) take on the zombie apocalypse, it’s that it wasn’t built for a single box office star. … And might take some real narrative chops to pull off. Why bother with a narrative tapestry that offers a Studs Terkel approach to a global undead infection — with multiple characters, situations and locales — when you can simply send your A-lister globetrotting a la James Bond from one CGI fest to the next. Ironically, the movie’s $200 million approach spins the entire low-budget reason zombie flicks exist on its head. But once the coffers run dry, Forster and his writers relocate the rewritten third act to a tensely mounted game of cat and mouse in a research facility that could have been part of The Walking Dead’s first season finale.
Truth be told, World War Z’s first 30 minutes are impressively frantic as we watch the zombie epidemic spread like wildfire through Philadelphia — which becomes a microcosm of what is happening on a global level. Forster stages the chaos and carnage with mounting urgency and terror, putting the audience in the center of a horrifying catastrophe. Swarms of teeth-gnashing zombies overrun urban landscapes and descend like hungry ants upon their fleeing victims. The best of these sequences is set in Jerusalem, where the undead pile atop one another in order to scale a defensive wall. Once over, they surge into the crowds like a rabid wave of death and destruction.
After its pedal-to-the-metal opening, however, WWZ settles into a narrative rut. Pitt criss-crosses the planet in search of the outbreak’s origins and a possible cure as his underdeveloped family waits aboard an aircraft carrier in grimaced worry. South Korea, India, Israel and Cardiff set the stage for some tense action vignettes but have little dramatic connection to one another. Each location just becomes an opportunity to indulge in another archetypical zombie scenario before jetting off to the next. It’s like a masterfully recorded Best-Of album that only plays the radio edits. A mid-air attack aboard an airliner could have been an instance of show-stopping terror, but is forced through its paces at such a breakneck pace that the full force of its horror never truly hits home. Forster’s filmmaking is built on velocity above all else, gutting his film of any dramatic resonance.
And as capable a lead as Brad Pitt is, his character is a little more than a good-hearted tough guy. We know he’s brave and loves his family but little else. The story never tests his emotions or loyalties. Instead he’s just another blank action hero on a mission to save humanity. The same can be said about the rainbow coalition of supporting actors who assist him on his quest.
What’s ultimately missing from WWZ is the sense of dread, doubt and loss that accompany the world-ending catastrophe at hand. Paced only for immediate reactions, Forster’s film never lets the helplessness and fear sink in. The stakes for humanity are obviously high, but within the film they feel inappropriately subdued and generic.
As Forster rounds the bend into his final act, the movie downshifts into a suspenseful quest to retrieve vials of pathogens from a zombie-infested laboratory. The focus is welcome. Executed like a heist, Pitt is part of a trio who must sneak past the inattentive undead. The sequence doesn’t particularly stand out for its execution, but at least it’s a change from the hysterical bombast of the movie’s first two-thirds. Once Pitt’s goals are achieved, however, the movie doesn’t so much conclude as lose power. A quickly sketched montage backed by an uninspired voice-over narration gives way to an incredibly awkward “that’s it?” freeze frame. It’s here that WWZ’s reported story problems and reshoots are most evident. If this ending is the best writer Damon Lindelof and company could come up with, it’s hard to believe the movie will spawn any sequels. Then again, we are talking zombies here.