Oct 2, 2020
World War Z (2013)
[Note from the editor: This review is by prospective staff writer Lauren K. Enjoy!]
Everyone knows how zombie apocalypse movies work by now: usually, some virus escapes, slowly turning everybody into mindless flesh-eaters, until only a small band of survivors is left to fend them off and find a cure. 2013’s World War Z frankly doesn’t deviate from that formula very much, but it is fast-paced and action-packed enough to still be exciting, without disappointing the average zombie fan that loves the guts and gore that’s a staple of the genre.
The movie is based on a novel where the narrative is constructed as a series of interviews with different players in a global war against zombies. The movie, on the other hand, focuses on one guy, former UN “troubleshooter” Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) as he travels the world trying to stop the zombie pandemic that’s spreading across the globe.
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We open on Gerry’s idyllic life in a Pennsylvania suburb with his wife (Mireille Enos) and two young daughters. The only signs of impending trouble are TV news reports of a virus outbreak in remote corners of the world. As Gerry drives his wife to work and his kids to school, total mayhem unfolds in the streets of Philadelphia. They see explosions, followed by huge crowds running away from crazed, mindless people chasing and biting them. And whenever someone gets bitten, they immediately transform within a few seconds into a ravenous, mindless monster as well.
Gerry immediately figures out that the zombie plague is upon us, and takes his family to a grocery store to load up on food and supplies. Of course, there’s a near-riot as everyone fights over the few remaining items, and Gerry ends up blowing away a guy to protect his wife.
Eventually, they seek refuge from the zombies and the looters in a rundown tenement building along with a Spanish-speaking family. Luckily, Gerry’s former boss at the U.N. has sent a helicopter to come pick him and his family up, because they need his special abilities in the fight against the zombies.
They’re flown to the anti-zombie command center aboard an aircraft carrier, where Gerry learns that the president is dead, the U.S. government has crumbled, and major cities all over the world are falling to the undead hordes. Gerry is forced to leave his family behind with thousands of other refugees while he goes in search of a possible vaccine/cure that can inoculate the survivors against the zombie virus.
First, he and his team travel to where the U.N. originally got reports of zombies, on an army base in South Korea. Gerry learns of how an ill soldier bit his doctor, and from there the two quickly infected everyone in the room, except for one soldier with a “gimpy” leg.
They also meet a ex-CIA operative (David Morse) who’s been locked up for selling arms to North Korea, and it seems all his teeth are gone. According to him, the North Koreans are keeping the zombie plague under control by having everyone’s teeth pulled, because no teeth means no biting, and no infections. He tells Gerry to go to Israel and investigate how the government there has also been holding out against the zombie plague.
As they try to leave the base, they’re of course attacked by more zombies. After lots of carnage, Gerry and another military guy get to Jerusalem, where they learn the Israelis took early reports of zombies seriously, and built a huge wall to keep them out. Unfortunately, the wall doesn’t last long, and Gerry gets there just in time to see the zombies coordinate like ants, and form a giant pile of bodies to finally make it over the wall.
The horde soon overruns Jerusalem, though Gerry notices how they curiously avoid one particular kid on the street for some reason. Soon, they begin chowing down on Gerry’s protection detail until it’s down to just one soldier. She gets bitten, but quick-thinking Gerry hacks off her arm, which keeps her from becoming infected.
Together, the two make a run for the airport and get aboard one of the last flights out. Gerry is then told by his U.N. superiors to find the nearest World Health Organization research facility, and he convinces the pilots to take them to Wales. But naturally, it turns out a zombie snuck aboard, and total chaos spreads though the plane. With all the passengers quickly becoming infected, Gerry throws a grenade that blows all the zombies out of the plane and causes them to crash.
Gerry and the Israeli soldier survive, and just happen to be within hiking distance of the W.H.O. facility they were heading to in the first place. When they get there, they meet a small group of scientists (one of whom will be recognizable to Doctor Who fans as Peter Capaldi, the next Doctor, and I kid you not, he’s credited here as “W.H.O. Doctor”).
They show Gerry surveillance footage of how one scientist was examining a blood sample and accidentally infected himself, and now they’re trapped inside and surrounded by zombies. After hanging around the facility and not doing much of anything for a while, Gerry finally comes up with a theory as to why the zombies choose not to infect certain people.
It seems the zombie virus needs a healthy host to propagate itself, so the zombies instinctively ignore anyone who’s sick. Gerry himself becomes the antidote as he temporarily injects himself with some random virus, tricking the zombies into thinking that he’s tainted and therefore off the menu. He’s able to walk right past the zombies and back to the scientists, who cure him of whatever he gave himself.
The story ends with all of humanity being given a virus (a weakened version of meningitis) which makes them invisible to the zombies. Gerry is reunited with his family, and we learn from his voiceover that the humans are now fighting back, but the war has just started.
World War Z had a massive budget of (by some estimates) $190 million, and it could have easily been an expensive flop. Things were looking especially dire when it turned out the third act of the film had to be completely reshot because it tested so poorly. And yet, it went on to became a huge hit, and is currently one of Brad Pitt’s highest grossing movies.
It’s not too hard to see why it connected with audiences. The plot is tried and true, and delivers all the expected action, suspense, and even a bit of romance between Gerry and his wife. The film also sets itself apart from other zombie movies by toning down the gore and bloodshed to make it… well, not exactly family-friendly viewing, but pretty close. World War Z is also a bit of travelogue, with sweeping landscapes and incredibly varied scenery that always looks stunning, even as it gets overrun with thousands of rotting, reanimated corpses.
That being said, the character development in this film was somewhat hit or miss. Gerry was well developed, as he should be, but his family and the others around him were never really fleshed out. It’s true that most of them ended up quickly becoming zombie fodder, but perhaps their deaths would have registered more if the movie had attempted to give them some depth. Overall, it seemed like Gerry was the only focus and the other characters were there simply to stroke Brad Pitt’s ego.
One can’t review a zombie flick without paying a bit of attention to the flesh-eaters themselves. There are generally three classes of zombies: the slow walkers, the runners, and the brainless twits. Slow walkers (who mostly just amble about and moan) are the most common, and can be seen in movies like Dawn of the Dead. Runners are less common and are featured in films like 28 Days Later, while brainless twits are often used in comedies like Shaun of the Dead.
World War Z merges two of these types together: The zombies are slow walkers when there’s no one around to devour, but once there are people nearby, or a giant wall to scale, they become intelligent runners that are determined to kill anyone and anything in their way. I wouldn’t call these zombies particularly scary (which is appropriate, given this movie leans more towards the “action” part of the action-horror genre), but they definitely make for an intimidating threat.
For those who don’t like Brad Pitt, be forewarned that he’s onscreen in this movie virtually every second from start to finish. I lost count of the number of shots of Pitt staring off into the distance in horror, or looking back over his shoulder in slow-mo while running from the zombie hordes. Though some might think it’s impossible to get tired of looking at his pretty blonde locks and chiseled features, this movie is almost entirely about him, and there are basically no scenes where characters are allowed to interact with each other without him in the room.
Those looking for zombie action won’t be let down, though to me the movie seems to have one or two battles too many. The formula got to be rather predictable after a while: Brad Pitt arrives at a new city, cue zombie attack. In fact, the overabundance of zombie action may have been what led the filmmakers to reshoot the third act.
Spoilers follow about the original ending…
According to various sources, the original screenplay splits off from the released film as they’re on the flight out of Israel. Instead of heading to Wales, the plane crashes in Russia, where Gerry is immediately drafted into the Russian army to fight zombies. Many months pass with Gerry unable to contact his family, eventually culminating in him taking part in a huge offensive in Red Square to take back Moscow.
Afterwards, Gerry learns that his wife and family were taken to a refugee camp. Earlier in the film, we saw an Air Force guy played by Matthew Fox, who disappears after briefly showing up in the background of a couple of scenes. In the original ending, it turns out Gerry’s wife had to reluctantly shack up with Matthew Fox’s character to ensure her family could stay at the refugee camp. The movie ends with Gerry and a couple of his buddies storming the camp to get his wife back.
Reportedly, the third act was reshot because test audiences found yet another massive zombie battle sequence to be mostly overbearing. But it’s hard to imagine viewers reacting well to a summer popcorn flick where a woman has to trade her body to survive. Those hoping to see the original ending on the Blu-ray are out of luck, however, because even though parts of those scenes were filmed, they were never actually finished and will most likely never see the light of day.
Unfortunately, the ending as it stands now isn’t a whole lot better. Damon Lindelof was brought in to rewrite the final act, and he delivers a rather dull finale that slows the momentum of what was a pretty fast-paced movie up to that point. And our lead character pretty much pulls the cure to the zombie “plague” out of his butt.
But overall, World War Z delivers, in particular by giving us zombies that are scary without being comical, gory without being grotesque, and mindless without being dumb. It’s a solidly entertaining film, though I’m guessing fans of the original book will disagree. By all accounts, the novel is a far more complex and sweeping tale about society dealing with the repercussions of a global disaster, something that’s hardly touched upon here. But hey, that’s what the inevitable sequels are for, right?
[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]