The big-budget "World War Z" (directed by Marc Forster from Max Brooks's novel) is first and foremost an old-fashioned zombie movie. It makes no rotting bones about it. In the 45 years since George A. Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" — whose influence on the genre will never be equaled — there have been a surprising number of really good zombie films (some of them also by Romero).
I say "surprising" because, compared to (for instance) the werewolf, vampire and Jekyll/Hyde genres, these films fail to tap into truly basic human fears and conflicts. They are easily the least sexual of these myths, unless you have issues around necrophilia; even Frankenstein has some sexual undertones. These other horror staples are rich in subtext; but zombies aren't a metaphor for anything. They are clumsy and stupid; all they have going for them is implacability. Romero's groundbreaker was powered by the notion that your BFF, your child, your mother, might turn instantly and (more or less) invisibly into the terrifying Other.
Brooks's bestseller distinguished itself from shelves of zombie books by a very clever narrative device: It followed the structure of Studs Terkel's nonfiction "oral histories" (like "Hard Times," "The Good War" and "Working"). It gained verisimilitude by disguising itself as history or reportage.
It also made the book seemingly unfilmable, more so than other recently "unfilmable" books like "Life of Pi" and "Cloud Atlas." Each chapter is a different voice; there is no central protagonist to bind together the "plot."
It's understandable why the project (which started shooting almost two years ago) was delayed by rewriting and reshooting. Rather than trying to develop a way to convert the structure into filmic terms — like the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer did for "Cloud Atlas" — the filmmakers simply gave us a hero and jammed the unusual narrative into a very usual form. Pitt plays the hero (duh!): he is Gerry Lane, a former U.N. inspector pressed into finding the source of the plague and from that a cure. His role in the movie is much like Tom Cruise's in "War of the Worlds"; he's who we identify with. His primary motivation is one of the most universal; he wants to reunite with his family.
In the film's chronology, it appears that small zombie outbreaks have been occurring for a while — unbeknownst to the public — and have reached critical mass. For much of the world, normality is crushed within hours or days; the zombie incubation period is variable, but often as short as a few moments. If each zombie were to bite two people each hour, it would take roughly 30 hours for the human race to vanish.
Pitt is excellent, as is Fana Mokoena as his former U.N. coworker. Because we are almost always with Gerry, none of the other actors get much face time: David Morse shows up in only one scene, albeit very effectively; veteran actors like Peter Capaldi and Moritz Bleibtreu get to do a little more in the story's final quarter. And I'm still not sure where Matthew Fox was.
There are some impressive visual effects: the way the zombies attack an Israeli compound makes no sense whatever, but it sure looks cool. Still, too many of the scare moments are just by-the-book recreations of overly familiar devices — sudden loud noises and lots of false alarms leading up to a real one. That doesn't ruin the fun, but it makes it a lot less memorable.
One generally tries not to review the budget, but it's sometimes hard to avoid. "World War Z" reportedly cost about $200 million — 1,600 times the budget of "Night of the Living Dead." Even adjusting for inflation, that's a lot less bang for the buck.
--ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).