Zombie movies are, at heart, disaster movies. The horror they exploit is not so much of the "Boo!" variety, but rather that of society in full collapse. So it's perhaps surprising that Marc Forster's World War Z feels, at times, like the first zombie movie to go full apocalypse on us. Rather than confine its story to one representative corner of the world — a shopping mall à la Dawn of the Dead or a corner of Britain à la 28 Days Later — it gives us the spectacle of a world in total, bloody, horrific ruin. Maybe that's why it's so compelling, even as it often drifts into the generic.
The elaborate, expensive production, adapted (loosely) from Max Brooks' acclaimed episodic 2006 novel, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, starts off with an eerie, intense scene set in Philadelphia, where former U.N. inspector Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family, stuck in a traffic jam, begin to hear, and then see, the first signs of slowly spreading chaos. These early scenes are enormously effective at establishing the Lanes' vulnerability — one of the daughters has asthma, and they have to loot a pharmacy to get her some medication.
As a result, the audience quickly becomes committed to these characters' survival. So much so that when the Lanes are whisked off to an aircraft carrier, where what's left of the U.S. government and military has set up a mobile unit, and Gerry is enlisted to track down the zombie epidemic's origin in hopes of finding a cure, we're genuinely concerned.
For a while after that, the film subsists mostly on apocalyptic set pieces: a journey to Korea, then Israel, where the country's walls and tight security have helped it ward off the swarming hordes of zombies. (Yes, these Israel scenes come off just as politically loaded as that description makes it sound — though I wonder if the filmmakers are even aware how troublesome this section of the film is.) Along the way, Gerry's various companions repeatedly give him much-needed information ... before they're inevitably eaten.
Even amid the repetitiveness, though, the film captures sights of horror that feel right. At one point, Gerry and some others fly over a mushroom cloud. Their faces initially register quiet shock, but they don't dwell on it much — of course somebody used nukes on the undead.
You'd think all this epic zombie spectacle would lead to one giant scene to rule them all, but think again: World War Z's final act is smaller, quieter and a lot more suspenseful than the film's trajectory might lead you to expect. Reportedly, a much bigger finale was shot and then scrapped, and this new ending is the result of rewrites and reshoots. That should bode ill for the movie, but somehow it doesn't. A film that begins with the predicament of one family ends on a similarly minor note, and the gargantuan World War Z recaptures the element that makes it so initially alarming: the intimacy of global horror arriving on the doorstep, all rage, bared teeth and hunger.