I’m no expert, but when zombies come to mind they fall into one of three groups. First, there are the old-school voodoo zombies of the Caribbean, as seen in The Serpent and the Rainbow, White Zombie and Val Lewton’s classic I Walked With a Zombie. Then there are the flesh-eating undead, which came to us via George A. Romero in Night of the Living Dead and its sequels; these have been beautifully adapted to the needs of comedy (Shaun of the Dead) and teen romance (Warm Bodies). Finally, there are the fast zombies that aren’t really zombies, introduced in 28 Days Later by the insufferably glib Danny Boyle.
World War Z features fast zombies.
Sadly, these doomed creatures really aren’t very zombielike. They do not inspire dread. Though infection spreads almost immediately after the human gets bit, biting seems to be the extent of what these zombies do. There is no chowing down on human flesh, doubtless in order to preserve the kid-friendly PG-13 rating. These zombies run very very fast, they are sensitive to noise, and they want to bite you. And that’s about it. There isn’t much in the way of real horror, only quick scares, and there is zero social commentary.
The film is loosely based on a very clever pop-horror novel of the same name by Max Brooks. (“Loosely” means that if you read the book, you won’t recognize any of it here.) The producers might as well have ditched the title World War Z and called this big-budget actioner Brad Pitt Saves the World. (Since Pitt is one of the producers, perhaps this is a sign of modesty.) The entire movie is built around Pitt’s character, an ex-U.N. investigator with superhuman skills. Millions all along the East Coast fall to a plague that spreads like wildfire; superdad Brad steers his doting wife and adorable daughters through Philly and Newark with barely a hitch. A genius scientist, dubbed the last hope of mankind, dies abruptly; brainy Brad remembers the one thing the “genius” said that leads to a way to combat the walking dead. An entire planeload of people die in midair in a horrific explosion; savvy Brad remembers to fasten his seatbelt and survives.
Though it will doubtless please Pitt’s international fan base, World War Z doesn’t offer much for anyone else. To paraphrase Pauline Kael, this is a zombie movie for people who don’t like zombie movies.