Back in the early ’80s, George Romero—the lord of the undead, the godfather of walking-corpse cinema—dared to dream big. Early drafts of Day Of The Dead, the third and then-final chapter of his Dead franchise, promised a bona fide horror epic, complete with a sprawling cast of characters and an opening act set in a city overrun with flesh-eaters. There was just one roadblock: In order to secure the funds necessary to mount such an ambitious opus, Romero would have to tone down the violence, at least enough to score an “R” rating from the MPAA. Given the choice between a healthy budget and buckets of gore, the director predictably opted for the latter, jettisoning the more expensive elements of his story. The resulting film is a milestone—maybe the bleakest and most graphic gut-muncher of them all—but epic it most certainly is not.
For a taste of what Romero may have originally envisioned, but splashed across a much larger canvas, look to the propulsive hell-on-Earth blockbuster, World War Z. In terms of pure scope, there’s never been a zombie movie like this one. Made for close to $200 million, the film spans several continents, flooding the streets of major cities with hundreds, maybe even thousands of extras, and giving audiences a taste of the mass chaos and hysteria movies like this normally skip past. The wow factor arrives early, with a Philadelphia traffic jam that escalates into a full-blown mob scene. As retired UN operative Brad Pitt attempts to navigate his family out of the outbreak zone, the camera pulls back and up, and the panoramic view—of bodies in fevered motion, of the dead in hot pursuit of the living—is pretty stunning.
But all that pricey mayhem comes with a different kind of price, the kind Romero simply wasn’t willing to pay. Saddled with a PG-13 rating—because no studio that spends this much bank is going to risk losing the business of cash-flush teenagers—World War Z is not just the biggest, but also one of the tamest zombie movies ever made. Yes, plenty of great horror films have relied on suggestion instead of Grand Guignol gruesomeness, but how many of them featured scenes of mass slaughter, of armies of the undead chasing down teeming, screaming crowds of civilians? Like The Hunger Games, which made a televised death-tournament safe for all ages, WWZ is skittish to an aesthetic fault. For all its shock-and-awe enormity, the Philly sequence is also borderline incoherent, masking bloodshed with frenetic editing. What viewers can’t visually process won’t hurt them.
Based on Max Brooks’ bestselling novel, World War Z bears only a passing resemblance to its source material. Granted, a true adaptation of that book— which is a sort of oral history of the zombie apocalypse, told exclusively through first-person accounts—would require the hours and hours of running time only television can provide. Here, the screenwriters, who include the much-maligned Damon Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus) and Cabin In The Woods director Drew Goddard, twist Brooks’ fictional, multi-perspective dossier into a linear hero’s journey. After getting his loved ones to safety—and being told by Fana Mokoena’s bigwig that their continued sanctuary depends on his cooperation—Pitt ventures out into a besieged world, searching for answers about the spread of the plague. His travels, which take him from a rainy, ravaged Korea to a walled-off Israel and beyond, are really just the catalyst for a series of run-and-gun setpieces. Peaking with a nightmare at 20,000 feet, World War Z bucks the current trend in summer blockbusters by feeling weirdly understuffed. It’s an episodic adventure without enough episodes.
Defaulting to empty-vessel superstar mode, Pitt is purely functional in the lead; there’s about as much life in his eyes as in those of the rampaging monsters he outruns. The actor’s workmanlike performance is in keeping with the hired-gun execution of director Marc Forster, whose only relevant experience for this job was making the lousy James Bond film between Casino Royale and Skyfall. Some of the mayhem is capably staged—see, again, the mile-high massacre—but Forster never generates the kind of doomsday dread common to even a mediocre episode of The Walking Dead. Part of that is the film’s tunnel vision: After the first act, the madness in the streets is largely unseen; while characters talk of whole cities “going dark,” Forster keeps the focus glued on Pitt. As in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion—a much better film about a global epidemic, and the efforts to contain it—the sheer enormity of the event gets lost. So, too, does much of the political subtext of Brooks’ novel, reduced here to a few lines of dialogue uttered between action sequences.
One of the biggest deviations from the text is the nature of the ghouls themselves, which Brooks described as basically identical to the standard, eating-machine Romero variety. By now, running zombies have become as common as shuffling ones, but these are a different beast entirely. Moving in frantic swarms, and even piling on top of each other to scale walls, Forster’s dead behave like the cells of a hostile virus. (They aren’t even carnivores, really, as biting is just a strategy to spread the disease.) That said, they do share one quality with Romero’s living dead: a secret gift for slapstick comedy. Some much-needed humor bolsters the film’s most playful and suspenseful passage, a nerve-wracking stealth operation through infested territory. And then World War Z, having apparently run out of money, just kind of trails off. What's the point in trading carnage for cash if the latter can't buy a proper ending, or much of an ending at all? When it comes to zombie movies, maybe Romero had it right: Smaller, and grislier, is better.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, the plot details we can't reveal in our review, see World War Z's Spoiler Space.