The people have spoken, and they have said braaaaaaains. Brad Pitt’s would-be runaway monster of a zombie movie “World War Z” is a hit and coming in at #2 this past weekend with the highest opening of Pitt’s career. Bad buzz be damned, ‘WWZ’ overcame the odds, the drama, the negative media attention to come out a solid winner (though as history shows, not every troubled production gets a happy ending). Sure, with global costs that could reach $400 million, it might be impossible for ‘Z’ to break even, but at this point, let’s face it, the movie wasn’t a colossal bomb and Paramount is breathing a deep sigh of relief. In fact, if the movie keeps going and has legs then its mooted sequel may not be in doubt, even if the movie can’t break even (studios always throw good money after bad and once they’ve started an investment, they don’t like to just chop it off at the wrist because it bled a little).
And so, the final verdict on the Marc Forster-directed “World War Z” after everything that went down? Well, it’s pretty terrific in spots, ok in others, a little clunky at times and pretty problematic if you’re looking at it discerningly (you can read our original review here). But put it this way: it’s nowhere near the disaster we were lead to believe it might be. If you’re looking at it from a pure thrill ride perspective, “World War Z” is likely going to win, but as usual, we thought we’d drill down a little deeper and deconstruct the elements that are great, the ones that are so-so and the ones that weren’t so great. Or the “Best & Worst Of World War Z” for the sake of clean communication. Our thoughts below.
From the opening moments of "World War Z," there's a certain nervous energy that translates into a genuine excitement that carries through the rest of the movie. It begins during the first suspense set piece, when Gerry and his family are trying to escape an infected Philadelphia. The tension never ceases, but instead builds exponentially from one moment to the next. Traffic is at a standstill; odd but not out of the ordinary. A cop warns the family to stay in the car; somewhat stranger. Then an explosion erupts and a giant truck starts to barrel through traffic; this is something to be concerned about. By the time the zombies show up, the tension has been ratcheted up to an almost unbearable level. Most of the sequences domino like this, and it's a testament to Marc Forster, arguably the unsung hero of most of "World War Z" (or at least for the first half of the film) for being able to capture thrilling, shocking images and turn them into exciting sequences, all within a genre so well worn its positively skeletal.
When Gerry flies to Israel to investigate how they've dealt with the problem (according to a toothless CIA operative, they've "handled" the zombies well over there), we're treated to the movie's suspense centerpiece: a giant swarm of zombies, attracted by the noise created by singing citizens as well as loudspeaker system, scale a huge wall that had been erected to keep the monsters out. (The zombie wall is one of the more barbed political flourishes in a movie that should have had more.) The sequence is less like a big summer movie set piece and more like a nightmarish Hieronymus Bosch painting; the level of detail is staggering and utterly terrifying. Unlike previous movie zombies, whether shuffling slowly on running at full speed, the "World War Z" zombies overwhelm completely, like piranhas taking down an injured gazelle or some of those scary jungle ants. The fevered pitch of this sequence is so high that the movie can never possibly hope to match it, which is why the third act (the one heavily rewritten and reshot) is so smart: instead of trying to up the ante, the movie now allows the Israel stuff to be the very peak of zombie terror. And instead of being a letdown, it ends up being just right.
If there's one thing "World War Z" does, it's move. The movie, at least in its first half, is breathlessly on the run with a pace that barely lets up. The original novel by Max Brooks took the form of an "oral history," so it was constantly jumping, all around the globe, to get every perspective of the zombie apocalypse. That is maintained, at least in spirit, in the final movie. There's also the fact that there were so many cooks in the kitchen trying to fix this thing that any extraneous plot threads were shaved away, leaving only the bare essence of the movie, a raw engine that a narrative is loosely draped upon. Sometimes those connective moments are lost (there seems to have been a lot more with that family in the building in Newark at some earlier point), but most of the time the "all killer, no filler" approach works brilliantly. It adds to the tension and suspense since structurally and pacing wise, the movie flies along like it's being chased by an army of the undead. Even the final act, which seems slightly more luxuriously staged (by comparison, at least) bolts forth.
"World War Z" goes to great length to note that it's not just the zombies that are terrifying - you've got to worry about people, too. This is exemplified in a sequence where Gerry and his family go into a pharmacy for supplies. The windows have been smashed out and everyone is looting (obviously). When Pitt goes behind the counter to grab some asthma medicine for his young daughter, he's confronted with a young man with a shotgun… Who then identifies himself as a pharmacist and tends to Gerry's needs. It's a nice reversal and adds to the intensity of the following scene, wherein Gerry's wife (Mireille Enos) is nearly raped by some dudes in the same pharmacy. When a policeman comes in, it's to seemingly restore some kind of order (or penalize the near-rapists) but instead he runs by desperately clutching onto bottles of baby foods he also drops on the ground as he rushes to get back to his child. This scenario is chilling, with a rather pessimistic view of a humanity faced with dire cicrumstances. The zombie scenes were pretty intense, too, obviously, both in terms of the overwhelming carnage of the Israel sequence and the quieter, more moody scares of the final act. It's rare for a big studio horror movie to be scary, even less so when it's hampered by a restrictive PG-13 rating (more on that in a minute), but despite all of its limitations, "World War Z" still managed to occasionally and genuinely thrill and scare.