Just about every zombie movie I can think of is set, for the most part, in tightly defined spaces where groups of survivors huddle to fend off the flesh-hungry hordes outside. World War Z, which may be the most entertaining and accomplished zombie thriller since George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1979), has touches of that suspenseful high-tension claustrophobia. Yet it’s a very different sort of zombie feast (far more than, say, The Walking Dead). It’s vast and sprawling and spectacular; it’s the first truly globalized orgy of the undead. The director, Marc Forster, is a filmmaker whose work I’ve never particularly liked (he made the genteel Finding Neverland, the overblown Monster’s Ball, and the Bond dud Quantum of Solace). Here, though, working from the 2006 Max Brooks novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, he shows a new audacity and flair. World War Z is epically scaled, but it’s not a messy, noisy, CGI-bogus, throw-everything-at-the-audience sort of blockbuster. It’s thrillingly controlled, and it builds in impact.
The film opens with music that’s meant to remind you of Tubular Bells, the chilling theme music from The Exorcist, and that’s followed by a collage of actual TV news snippets cleverly edited together to suggest a world already tilting toward the abyss. In Philadelphia, where Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), his wife (Mireille Enos), and their two daughters (Sterling Jerins and Abigail Hargrove) are driving from their suburban home toward the center of town, we’re plunged into the first disquieting evidence of the zombie virus, the warning signs of breakdown: giant traffic jams, a street-corner explosion, cops whizzing by, and, finally, a zombie — or is it just an angry, desperate civilian? — crashing up against the windshield.
When people in World War Z get bitten and turn into rabid undead freaks, the conversion happens frighteningly quickly, without a lot of fuss. They lie on the ground for a moment, then get all twitchy, as if they’re receiving an electroshock treatment, and their eyes bulge up to the heavens in rage. Gerry, a former U.N. investigator, spends most of the film traveling around the world, searching for the origins of the virus (and a possible cure), yet metaphorically speaking, we’re already cued to see what has brought about this onslaught. World War Z is rooted in the current mood of economic panic and terrorist fear and impending chaos. It presents the zombie army as a culmination of what it’s going to look like if and when the bottom falls out of our society.
An early scene set in South Korea, where Gerry looks over the dusty remains of Patient Zero, has a hushed creepiness, but World War Z finds its own unique atmosphere of large-scale disorder after Gerry arrives in Jerusalem, where the Israelis have erected a wall around the city to keep the zombies out. The wall doesn’t work. As the zombies — and there are thousands of them — shimmy up the side of it, in a squirmy hill of bodies that spill over the top of the edifice, the action hits a raw nerve of peril, a feeling that nothing can keep them out.
World War Z lifts some of its vérité-apocalypse mood, as well as the terrifying speed with which the zombies move, from Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2003). Yet this is a much more varied and surprising movie, built around a soberly commanding performance by Pitt as the family man who must leave his wife and daughters on a U.N. command ship as he hops from one trouble spot to the next. As Gerry, Pitt is cool, fearless, tense, compassionate, and brutally tough (at one point, he chops off the hand of a soldier to save her from going zombie). He’s feral grace under pressure.
The stakes for survival keep getting raised. A zombie attack aboard an airplane has a nightmarish this is really happening intensity (though it does give the film a semi-preposterous moment, when the plane starts to go down). Then Pitt arrives at a World Health Organization facility, where he must brave sterile white corridors dotted with zombies to get inside a lab vault. The film lets us linger for a bit on what the zombies look like — one’s a gnashing Miles Davis clone, one clicks its teeth in close-up like a demented gopher — and the story’s blend of terror and ingenuity attains an intoxicating, jittery finesse. World War Z turns the prospect of the end of our world into something tumultuous and horrifying and, at the same time, exciting. It’s scary good fun. A-