Max Brooks's World War Z is probably the most serious zombie book ever written, an "oral history of the zombie war" that tracks across continents and multiple disasters a viral outbreak that makes monsters of the dead. The movie based on it, also called World War Z, might be the most serious zombie movie ever made. That's pretty much the only similarity it shares with Brooks's novel, but surprisingly enough, that's OK. In fact everything that's OK about World War Z, from Brad Pitt's stern lead performance to the high-wire tension of the finale, is a surprise. No movie this blatantly cobbled together ought to work nearly as well as World War Z does.
Despite a PG-13 rating that hamstrings some of its most visceral moments, World War Z establishes a strong mood of dread and terror from its very beginning, a family car ride through Philadelphia interrupted by the panic of an early zombie invasion. Pitt's Gerry Lane is a former UN researcher who's been out of the game for several years, and he's just the right mix of professional and everyman you want to follow in this situation-- comfortable using a rifle and dressing a wound, but perplexed and terrified for his family's safety. No one uses the word "zombie" until much later in the film, when Gerry, his wife (Mireille Enos) and adorable daughters (Sterling Jerins and Abigail Hargrove) are airlifted to a military aircraft carrier, one of the few safe spaces left on the planet. The UN wants Gerry to accompany a young virologist (Elyes Gabel) to an army base in South Korea, where they believe the virus started. Doing so is the only way his family can keep getting room and board on the aircraft carrier, so Gerry-- reluctant hero, devoted dad-- sets out on his hunt.
The script-- famously written and re-written by half a dozen people-- is not so much a story as a series of set pieces, moving from the big Philadelphia attack to a tense escape in a Newark apartment building to a nighttime operation in South Korea to a siege in Jerusalem to a haunted house-style showdown in Wales. In general the biggest scenes are the least effective, with director Marc Forster's shaky camera nearly unbearable in 3D, and the entire uncanny valley terror of zombies wasted in a blur of bodies and teeth and carnage. The script's weaknesses show in getting Gerry from place to place-- the Jerusalem attack in particular is caused by sheer human stupidity-- and in blurring past bits of non-essential world-building. As a CIA traitor locked up in the South Korea brig, David Morse is fascinating… but inexplicably written off by the grunts on the base. Gerry hops on a passenger plane out of Jerusalem, which is somehow not just filled with healthy people, but their luggage. Many moments of World War Z powerfully evoke a world spinning out of control, but those serve to make the weaker ones all the more glaring.
Just when World War Z seems prepared to dole out more of the same exhaustingly paced action, it shifts radically into the third act, a section rewritten by Cabin in the Woods director Drew Goddard and Lost's Damon Lindelof that rescues the movie entirely. With the global stakes of Gerry's mission more than clear, the film has the permission to ramp down the scale considerably, setting scenes within the tight confines of an airplane and a medical research building, both of them humming with all the tension that the shaky, chaotic bigger scenes never managed. Pitt seems to find himself in the later scenes as well, not just a grim-faced hero on a mission, but a clever and risk-loving man who's finally using all that research and putting it into action. (He's joined, crucially, by Daniella Kertesz, a stoic but open-faced Israeli actress who is luminous here). The end of the film is much more like a traditional zombie film, with a limited cast of characters and occasional pops of grim humor, but after an hour and a half of disaster-movie-level destruction, it's a welcome relief. We finally are inspired to care about Gerry and the rest of these unlucky humans, just in time for an ending that inevitably leaves the door open for a sequel.
There's not a thing in World War Z that hasn't been done better in another film from these apocalypse-minded times-- the science angle evokes Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the zombie terror Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later or Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, and the scenes of city-wide destruction could come from virtually any recent summer blockbuster. But it's impressive to see a movie this big stay dark for so long, and to watch a film torn in a million different directions seem to find itself as it goes along. LIke any good action hero, World War Z pulls out one bit of last-minute derring-do and saves its own skin-- a hollower victory than they might have liked, but more than any of us expected.