Gerry (Brad Pitt) escapes with his family.
(Courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

World War Z (2013) Review

World War Z is yet another zombie film that highlights the line that separates fans of the zombie genre from non-fans. The traditional zombie is a person that died and then rose as a flesh-eating corpse. They are immune to reason, pain and most damage, making them hardy combatants. Their greatest weakness is that they are slow and easily outwitted. Their greatest strengths are their numbers, which increases with each victim, and their relentlessness. The horror of the zombie settled somewhere within the fear of being eaten alive made worse by the undeniable human shapes of the monsters. Contextual to the zombie horror was the survival horror created by a world overrun by the undead. Starvation, exposure and despair were just a few other dire considerations that zombies brought with them. Zombie horror is a marathon, not a sprint. World War Z, like many other modern zombie films, eschews much of what defines traditional zombie horror, catering more to contemporary audiences who want immediate scares. So on one hand, World War Z will satisfy many viewers who find traditional zombies too simple of a problem. On the other hand, long-time zombie enthusiasts will be very disappointed.

Ex-UN Investigator, Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), is traveling with his wife (Mireille Enos) and daughters when a zombie pandemic rocks the entire world. These zombies are incredibly fast, nimble, strong and turn their victims within 12 seconds of biting them. Pulling some strings, Gerry contacts his friend Thierry Umotoni (Fana Mokoena), who is still working for the UN, to evacuate his family out of Philadelphia by helicopter to be taken to a navy carrier for safety. Unfortunately, Gerry is coerced into going on a dangerous mission to discover the source of the outbreak and try to find a way to turn the tide of war against the undead.

In short, World War Z is the breading that makes the zombie genre palatable for people who never liked it to begin with. There’s very little about the creatures in the film to distinguish them as uniquely zombies; they move like Olympic athletes, don’t seem particularly interested in actually eating anyone or anything, and, since victims turn quickly, these creatures don’t create any real sense of impending doom among their victims who may have been bitten but got away. If none of the characters referred to the creatures as zombies and if the title of the film didn’t reference a book about zombies, then it’s doubtful audiences would immediately guess that the monsters in the film were zombies since no one is ever explicitly shown dying and coming back as the undead. For all audiences know, the zombies could just be people infected by rabies or a parasite or are just crazy. In fact, the zombies in the film only seem interested in spreading the virus; they’re never shown devouring a victim. They bite once and move on. The frenetic pace is, of course, much more stressful than traditional shambolic zombies, which heightens the fear, but it also destroys any chance for sobering dramatic reflection on humanity and survival, which have always been staples of the zombie genre.

The film is supposedly based on the novel by the same name written by Max Brooks. Sadly, the film has almost nothing to do with the book and vice versa except that both works explore how different parts of the world handle the crisis. So while the book offered several intimate stories from around the world to illustrate the zombie problem, the film crafts a somewhat generic action sci-fi film that follows one overarching storyline. The movie audiences get will definitely entertain, but it’s a far cry from the source material, which will definitely disappoint fans of the book.

For a zombie horror film there’s surprisingly little blood and gore. No one ever gets dismembered or disemboweled. No one is eaten alive. Even characters who nobly sacrifice themselves do so off-screen. While the lack of viscera is perplexing, it’s hardly a deal breaker. There are many ways to disquiet audiences, and monsters leaping out of the shadows more than suffice. World War Z is scary, but not in the way zombie fans would expect it to be.

One disappointment that both fans and non-fans of the zombie genre can agree on is the lack of a human element in World War Z. Zombie movies have always been about the breakdown of humanity on a large scale and on an intimate level. In most zombie films, it’s the humans that are the biggest obstacle to surviving a zombie outbreak. And while that theme is touched on early in the film, with an attempted rape and people pointing guns at each other, it’s not explored any further, opting instead to get back to running away from chasing monsters. Ultimately, World War Z is a fun, action-packed thrill ride, and if you’re a fan of the zombie genre, then that should turn you off.