BY VAN ROBERTS
The best thing about the zombie thriller “World War Z” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) is its feverish pace. Only the zombies themselves move faster than this suspenseful, but immaculate, 115 minute chiller about a global zombie apocalypse. Cinematically, traditional zombies came from the Caribbean and shuffled. Indeed, zombies have been shuffling since “White Zombie” (1930) where wicked sugar cane plantation owner Bela Lugosi exploited them as a source of cheap labor. Of course, he kept them under control with the use of voodoo. The zombies in “WWZ,” on the other hand, run rather than shuffle. These aggressive, hell-bent-for-flesh zombies in “World War Z” are nothing new, particularly since the Italian-produced outing “Nightmare City” (1980) where the undead tried on their track shoes for the first time. Pouring out of a jetliner, those irradiated zombies wrecked havoc with weapons such as machetes, knives, axes, and machine guns! Most will remember “28 Days Later” (2003) as their introduction to fleet-footed zombies. Essentially, zombies were running long before “World War Z.” Ostensibly based on Max Brooks’ landmark zombie novel, “World War Z” streamlines the storylines into one to generate greater momentum. Furthermore, this film concludes somewhat uncertainly with its catastrophe-in-progress, whereas the war in Brooks’ book has ended. Brad Pit does play the equivalent of a United Nations agent, but he doesn’t visit survivors and interview them. Fans of Brooks’ bestseller may not appreciate the changes that “Quantum of Solace” director Marc Forster and scenarists Matthew Michael Carnahan of “The Kingdom,” Drew Goddard of “Cloverfield,” and “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof have wrought. Meantime, hardcore zombie fanatics will undoubtedly lament the lack of blood, gore, and more. This humorless Paramount release has eliminated virtually all traces of blood and gore for a family friendly PG-13 rating. You can catch more gut-munching on AMC’s “Walking Dead” than in this timid movie.
Swedish director Marc Forster plunges audiences head first into the fracas. Initially, we meet the Lane family. Gerry (Brad Pit of “Fight Club”) is a former United Nations trouble shooter with a sterling reputation for getting the job done. He lives with his wife, Karin (Mireille Enos of “Gangster Squad”) and their two under-age daughters, Constance (Sterling Jerins) and Rachel (Abigail Hargrove) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Life appears happy but not too sappy for the Lanes. No sooner have they wheeled into the streets than they witness some bizarre behavior. Helicopters swarm overhead as if an emergency has occurred, and police rush past them on their motorcycles. Our heroes listen to the radio and hear an announcer mention something about rabies. Mind you, like the Lanes, we are kept in the dark for most of the time about the origin of this zombie pandemic, too. Gerry watches as a man mutates before his eyes into a zombie after several minutes. When their vehicle breaks down, Gerry commandeers another vehicle. He careens off to a nearby high-rise apartment complex to wait for the United Nations to pick him up. Gerry’s former boss, U.N. Deputy Secretary General Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena of “Safe House”) has a chopper pluck Gerry and his family from a rooftop moments before zombies are about to take a munch out of them. Thierry flies Gerry to the safety of a U.S. Naval armada in the North Atlantic. Our hero learns that the President is dead; the Vice President is missing without a trace, and most of America bristling with zombies. U.N. officials want Gerry to locate patient zero. In other words, our long-haired, unshaven hero must find where the outbreak broke out. In the novel, the outbreak occurred in China, but Forster and company shift the blame to the poor Koreans. This isn’t the first time that the Koreans have been substituted for the Chinese. Anybody who has seen either the “Red Dawn” remake or “Team America: World Police” should know that tidbit. Our reluctant hero balks at Thierry’s proposal until he learns that they will fly him back to the zombie-infested City of Brotherly Love with his family unless he lends a hand.
Afterward, Forster and company rarely let the action slacken for a moment unless the characters have to explain something to each other. The filmmakers treat us to sprawling scenes where zombies scale lofty walls like maniacal ants. Literally, they behave like suicidal Marines as many hurl themselves at walls and buildings to provide head, shoulders, and backs as platforms for others to climb. The zombies here react violently to noise and rampage after anything that makes noise. Rather than focus on the usual, tasteless, gut-munching melodramatics of most grind-house zombie sagas, Forster drums up considerable tension and suspense with how our heroes elude the zombies. One white-knuckled scene depicts our heroes trying to sneak past zombies in a laboratory without arousing their attention. Naturally, our heroes aren’t quiet enough and the zombies tear into them at the first sound. Although it makes use of the standard conventions of a zombie movie, “World War Z” alters the formula. Our heroes find a means to stop the zombies from munching mankind. Basically, what Forster and his scripters have done is come up with the viral equivalent of smearing zombie blood and guts on your body so the undead won’t recognize you as a snack. The proof is in the pudding, but the solution lacks credibility and the narrative runs out of steam. Discretion prevents me from disclosing how Gerry and mankind get a foothold and blunt the zombie infestation. Incidentally, the military refers to zombies as “Zekes.” The scenes at the airport, in the air, and on the ground in the medical research facility will keep you glued to your seat with dread. By the final 30 minutes, predictability asserts itself because you know Brad will come out of it alive with his family intact. For the most part, “World War Z” takes itself seriously and shuns any attempt at ghoulish humor. Since the 1970s, the typical zombie movie ladled out the blood and gore like gravy and potatoes, but “World War Z” shuns such shenanigans.