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A wild story about a zombie pandemic had an equally wild shoot. Inside Brad Pitt's struggle to bring the best-selling epic ''World War Z'' to the screen

It's ticking toward midnight on a frosty October night in 2011 in a cheerless corner of Budapest, and Brad Pitt is a man on a mission. The actor is nearly naked — wearing only some cotton shorts and a pair of untied shoes — but he's got a blanket wrapped around his shoulders that gives him the look of a prophet. Is he seeking truth? Or maybe just his lost shopping cart? ''I need a chili dog,'' he says over his shoulder to a journalist he has known for less than 90 seconds. To make it closer to a conversation, he adds a question: ''Do you like chili dogs?'' He doesn't wait for his visitor to answer or catch up. He has been called the sexiest man alive, but right now he's just the hungriest man in Hungary.

Pitt has been fasting for days and hints that he hasn't eaten a proper meal in a couple of weeks. The effect is a famine physique: His famous abs are missing in the cave-in above his beltline, and his face appears to be shrink-wrapped. Pitt wanted to bring some ''authentic desperation,'' as he puts it, to a scene that finds his character among the ragged captives of Russian slavers, just one of the menacing factions in the sci-fi/horror epic World War Z (out June 21). The movie, which the actor is producing, is his bid to build himself a PG-13 action franchise, and it is also the most expensive zombie film ever made.

At the moment, Pitt is beating a path to a New York-style hot dog stand on set, an incongruous sight considering that the World War Z crew is encamped at an abandoned canning factory dressed to resemble a Moscow manufacturing plant. Soviet-era tanks flecked with fake snow and piles of rubbery corpses give the scene a brutal tint at the edges. Pitt grabs two frankfurters and adds jalapeños. ''Greatest chili dog ever,'' he says, cheeks bulging.

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