Does anyone else talk about Land of the Dead these days? For those of you who don’t remember, it was the last in Romero’s quadrilogy about the zombie take over of the planet. He would make two additional zombie films, but neither of them are worth mentioning. I bring it up because everyone seems to have turned against the movie and because World War Z covers much of the same ground. But unlike Romero, who realized that his zombie films were perfect for an satire about how easily humanity can succumb in a crisis, World War Z is played perfectly straight.
That means it delivers the goods and comes across as the grand portrayal of how the world would probably end. Brad Pitt also gives an effective performance as Gerry Lane, a UN inspector who travels around the world searching for a way to save the survivors. And the scenes of destruction of the cities actually work. Unlike the usual awe inspiring special effects that make people almost happy to see destruction and is meant to showcase the FX companies work rather than tell a story, World War Z’s effects do give a real sense of dread at seeing the world crumble. And the zombies are horrific.
But filmmakers like Romero recognized that, during a zombie apocalypse, it’s the people that are the greatest enemy. Zombies are mindless corpses that only are frightening in large groups. It is the shock of the events and humanity’s inability to deal with the situation that leads to the apocalypse, not the zombies themselves. World War Z never gets that far in its thoughts. I have not read Max Brooks’ original novel (I intend to now) so I am not sure if the source material tackled it either. But still, in a genre as famous as this, surely the people involved would have recognized the extra steps necessary to make World War Z a true classic?
Well, I’m not going to focus this time on what the film does wrong, because it does so much right. In an era where audiences have practically developed a fetish for watching the world be destroyed, World War Z actually gives a sense of societal collapse. It is not even through buildings getting blown up good, but through moments like a police officer joining looters in a grocery store raid. There is also a very accurate situation in which people who managed to survive are offered no protection by the army and are spirited away via helicopter when they are not “useful.” And there is a worldly sense to the epic, including an examination of how different nations would react to the same problem. Israel tries to save everyone, North Korea rips out the teeth of its citizens to prevent the infected from biting anyone, and the U.S. feels it is invulnerable to any threat. These are all great elements that help the film.
And I just like Brad Pitt. If I had to pick the most underrated actor of recent memory, I would probably pick him. Yes, he’s a star, but he never gets the credits he deserves for his craft. Here, he plays the usual family man who is thrust into making a choice between saving the world or leaving the ones he loves. Pretty much every single big budgeted film features this as the protagonist, but Pitt does what he can to help the trope seem fresh. He seems genuinely committed to being the good family man who wants to save his family first, rather than the world. Even his genuine acts of kindness do seem desperate – they’re being done with a level of self interest. Check out the scene in which he quickly hacks off someone’s hand to save her from becoming a zombie. There is no stereotypical emotional build up. He has to make a quick action, and he does so. The person he saves screams in agony when he does it, and Pitt himself is horrified by his actions. It does not matter that he is correct. He is not a hero – he is still a man.
The film is an engaging one, which makes it more frustrating that the zombies themselves are not as meaningful as they could be. I don’t get the idea that zombie-ism somehow leads to super powers. They run faster than the average person could. The symptoms also develop too quickly. I know it’s all about the suspension of disbelief, but making humanity face an overpowered foe does not allow us to see humanity. Again, the purpose of any apocalyptic film is to examine human society and how they react to the situation. Giving them this enormous threat does not allow us to see how decisions were made or whether or not they were good choices. In fact, they all seem perfectly reasonable. As I said, North Korea had everyone’s teeth ripped out. The point should be to examine the madness of such an action. But this, when you see the zombies that make Jesse Owens look like a paraplegic, seems perfectly reasonable. So where’s the horror? Where’s the criticism? Where’s the mad consolidation of power related to these outbreaks? I wish World War Z could have explored that aspect of the zombie outbreak.
World War Z is not as good as a Romero zombie film. So what? That does not mean World War Z a bad film. It still accomplishes the goals it sets out to accomplish and does feature some jaw-dropping scenes, strong performances, and genuinely frightening moments. I have a feeling that World War Z is going to end up being one of the better films of Summer 2013, and in many ways, it is the sort of thrilling drama that most summer blockbusters try to be.