Max Brooks’ 2006 novel “World War Z” portrayed a global zombie outbreak in fragments of reports from around the world that, minus the flesh-eating reanimated corpse factor, could easily have documented more credible diseases. While it roots the same events in the context of one survivor’s experiences, the movie version similarly aims to realistically portray society under the strain of an unstoppable virus, to the point where the zombie threat is secondary to the bureaucratic processes it instigates. Not many brains get munched, but plenty of people use them.
A close cousin of Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” Marc Forster’s adaption of Brooks’ tome juts forward with a grave sense of purpose that only works when generating feelings of nervousness and peril to go along with its big ideas. The walking dead are supporting characters in this sincerely thoughtful drama, which stumbles along in its cold first hour before reaching a more alarmingly suspenseful climax. “World War Z” provokes before it thrills, but the concept only gels when those two ingredients come together.
The focus on disease comes at the expense of other possibilities. With Brad Pitt as Gerry, the calculated U.N. agent scouring the globe in search of a cure, “World War Z” abandons much of the metaphoric weight encoded into the zombie genre’s DNA since George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” some 45 years ago. Part of the initial allure of zombies, kicked off by Romero’s movie and further amplified by his supermall-set sequel “Dawn of the Dead,” comes from the way the commentary writes itself: the zombies as a metaphor for a brain-dead society, and the shock of dealing with an attack that comes from within rather than abroad, emerge naturally from these tense survival narratives. Romero elevated his B-movie set-up with profound implications. “World War Z” thrusts its ideas at you with the serious pose of an international thriller that just happens to include the undead.
Despite its cerebral setbacks, “World War Z” delivers a handful of effectively nail-biting moments. The well-orchestrated opening finds Gerry and his family escaping a zombie-riddled Pennsylvania, battling through an infected apartment building and eventually finding shelter in a U.N. relief base. Once there, however, “World War Z” stumbles into the creaky mid-section, with Gerry jetting off to the Middle East in search of a cure. By the time he arrives in Israel, where the zombies have been kept out by a surrounding wall (har, har), “World War Z” starts to take on the sluggish feel of a civics course straining to maintain dramatic momentum. Anyone who has appreciated the concept of zombie movies over the years may detect the whiff of condescension in the way “World War Z” forces this quintessential manifestation of the American id into a blatantly high brow conceit.
Fortunately, that unseemly process gives way to a stunningly intense zombie-on-a-plane showdown that segues into the contained setpiece of the final act, which takes place inside the infected lab where Gerry closes in on a cure. Once there, “World War Z” finally reaches a satisfying blend of medical intrigue and taut survivor antics. But even then, the dangers maintain a relatively innocuous feel, partly because the movie’s so aggressively PG-13: There’s little in the way of gore or other grotesque imagery to imbue the situation with bonafide terror. Merciful cutaways abound — you never really see any of these suckers take a bullet to the head — nor does anybody swear that often. In its quest to smarten up the genre, the filmmakers also stiffen it. “World War Z” may wear its intellect proudly, but also consciously translates the zombie premise into a safer context for wider audiences. It’s not the smartest zombie movie ever made, but might be the most commercial one.
Criticwire grade: B-