Whichever phoneme you plump for, the Z stands for zombie, and the film contains, on a rough estimate, hundreds of thousands of them.
It is based on a novel by Max Brooks, and it follows Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a flaxen-haired former United Nations action man who is recalled to the line of duty when a mysterious pandemic turns citizens of various countries into walking, chomping corpses.
Brooks’ novel was a thinly-veiled parable about American foreign policy and post-millennial anxiety, told from several points of view: in fact, it had much in common with Steven Soderbergh’s terrific 2011 medical thriller Contagion. Marc Forster’s movie junks the satire and multiple perspectives, and instead recasts the story as an uncomplicated globe-trotting thriller. On one side we have Lane and a roster of temporary sidekicks, and on the other, an inexhaustible supply of the living dead.
What we get is a collection of moderately violent action set-pieces untroubled by humour. Lane travels from Philadelphia to Nova Scotia via New York, New Jersey, South Korea, Israel and Wales, and almost nothing that happens along the way has the slightest effect on the film’s final outcome.
Perhaps this should come as no surprise: shortly after filming on World War Z was thought to be complete, seven weeks of extra shooting took place in Budapest, which was followed by the writing and filming of an entirely new third act later in the year. Whatever direction the film was originally headed in, someone important obviously thought better of it.
Forster, who directed the Bond movie Quantum of Solace, has done his best to piece together a story from these incompatible parts, but the final product has an elaborate awkwardness about it, like a broken teapot glued back together with the missing pieces replaced by parts of a vacuum cleaner.
Many reviewers have said that the zombies in the movie are too fast to be truly scary. That may be a sacrilegious point in some nerd circles, but it’s a key insight derived from epidemiology and, zombies aside, it has serious implications for global health.
The rise of fast zombies – zombies that hunt like velociraptors rather than shamble like drunks – is a great and recent innovation in zombiedom. It’s what made the movie‘28 Days Later’ such a hit and that’s why the filmmakers opted for fast zombies in World War Z.
Personally I found the zombies pretty menacing, and really enjoyed the scenes when the tension was so high, and then out of nowhere a zombie would jump out and scares the bejesus out of you.
However many of the movie’s key dramatic moments wouldn’t feel particularly out of place on a horror-themed edition of The Thick Of It. In one early sequence, when Lane tries to creep past a crowd of zombies on a military base, his cover is blown when his wife Karen (Mireille Enos) unexpectedly rings his mobile. Moments earlier, an important character trips up and accidentally shoots himself in the head, and you start to question whether the planet might in fact be safer in the hands of the zombies.
At least the movie has one neat trick: in the Israel sequence we see Boschian wide-shots of zombie hordes coursing down streets and sluicing over barriers like a great, monstrous flood. This chimes with the footage of swarming insects in the opening titles, and suggests that the film may have once had a point to make before the rot set in. But there’s no heart to be found amid the guts.
By Ruth Walker