World War Z: No Heart, No Brain…What Am I Aiming For?

Zombie fans, like the monsters they enjoy so much, are a massive, inexorable horde in the ranks of fandom everywhere. In books, in film, in games of every kind, the zombie lurches, shambles, crawls, and sometimes runs along, forever in search of more living humans to devour. Sometimes the zombies are disposable if macabre fodder for a greater evil at work, sometimes their apocalyptic threat allows the author to provide social commentary on the human condition, and sometimes the zombies are mostly a backdrop for the human drama that comes from opposition to a mindless, ravening horde destroying the old human society, and what good or evil comes from people as a result.

Today’s film, World War Z, apparently decided to skip all three of these uses for its zombies in its haste to be the single worst adaptation of a book I have ever had the misfortune to pay for and a strong contender for a slot in the top fifteen dumbest movies I have seen in my life.

World War Z is based…no, adapts some…no, perhaps borrows…that is, shares a title with a book of the same name by Max Brooks, published in 2006 as a narrative follow-up to his Zombie Survival Guide. The book World War Z presents itself as a compilation of oral accounts of survivors after the titular Zombie Apocalypse has been narrowly averted, examining the first cases of the virus, the period of quiet spread as people and governments alike ignored the growing threat, to a massive period of panic and chaos when the zombie virus became epidemic, and finally to the re-stabilizing of the world’s nations and the counter-offensive to take the planet back from the undead hordes. The book uses a number of viewpoints and voices to discuss the political, religious, and environmental effects of the events surrounding the Zombie War and its aftermath, allowing Brooks to add some social satire and personal commentary on the human condition; from the multinational cast of voices we see how the social foibles of many nations, America and China in particular, allowed the virus to grow out of control until much more drastic measures were required with shattering impact on the entire world, while Israel’s willingness to prepare for the “impossible” saves them from the worst of the plague.

The film shares next to nothing with its namesake; the clearly defined origin point for the virus (China) is now a mystery, the Brooks zombies ultimately defeated due to their inability to run, climb, or think are now extremely fast mobs of cannibals that climb all over the place and often seem to run together into one big CGI blob of meat, the many voices and perspectives on the war are now focused down into main character Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and the people he runs into trying to investigate the virus, the many nations dealing with the undead hordes in their own ways is simply reduced to a pair of fleeting and frantic visits outside the U.S. borders, and the social, geopolitical, and ecological commentary is lost amidst mindless violence and the annoying nasal shrieks of the zombies.

For borrowing the name of a book that is rather inventive in suggesting how human society would bounce back from the looming threat of a Zombie Apocalypse, World War Z fails to innovate, and its tremendously weak cast and story show the heaviest signs of this. Brad Pitt does his best with the role of Gerry Lane, being a believable character actor as usual, but the viewer’s eyes already begin to glaze over as we learn about his character’s plotline. Government work background, 2, 3! “I don’t do this anymore”, 3, 4! “You’re the best we’ve got”, 5, 6! Despite Brad Pitt’s good acting, Gerry Lane, former U.N. investigator and current family man trying to look after his wife and kids just isn’t a terribly original character, and as he shares the film with a vast array of complete non-entities, World War Z is in a deep character hole for a movie that can’t rely on its antagonists to pick up the slack.

The story, similarly, is an extremely safe, bland, by-the-numbers summer action flick; the best part of the movie by far is the genuinely tense beginning, when Lane and his family are caught in the middle of a massive panic in the initial outbreak of the zombie mobs and need to fight and hide their way to safety in dark, claustrophobic environments as society breaks down all around them. Unfortunately, after this decently promising opening, the movie spirals downward rapidly as Lane is drafted to try and find the origin of the virus and a way to combat it in exchange for his family being kept safe on a government ship while he is away. The plot hits a long stretch as braindead as its monsters at this point, as the investigation falls into a short waltz of Lane landing his plane, talking to some survivors, and failing to get answers before the zombies churn out in force and kill everyone but Lane. It’s not until we get to the home stretch of the movie that we finally have a scene where Lane is able to reach any meaningful conclusions in his investigation and is not immediately interrupted by a zombie rampage killing everyone else; unfortunately, after this there is nothing left but the final chase, a migraine-inducing reveal about the zombies, and a rather disappointing open ending. The movie feels utterly generic, and the fact that the investigation that is meant to be the heart of the movie feels vague and moronic most of the time is likely to leave you very unsatisfied, especially book-readers who might have been interested to see the movie tackle the enormous paradigm shift humanity needs to undergo in its approach to combat and labor to turn the tide against the enemy their negligence unleashed. The film makes little effort, takes no risks, and ultimately feels more like a shambling, lifeless husk than the zombies themselves.

In the interests of fairness to the zombie genre, I must turn now to the question that even bad zombie movies can pick up points on; how are the zombies? To which I must answer: not very good. The CGI zombies the film employs in many scenes aren’t terribly well-animated, and their constant sprinting and jerky movements means you can’t really get a good bead on them for a lot of the film; vagueness undermines a sense of terror, and unfortunately the specifics later on in the film don’t help at all. The film’s endgame gives us a closer look at the Zombies, but their absurdly over-the-top “idle” motions and noises are more goofy than scary; I truly must wonder who thought it was a good idea that the “main” zombie chasing Brad Pitt at the climax should have a massive overbite and a tendency to click its teeth in a dorky-looking way, as the theater I was in began snickering at the display. Combine this with the zombies emitting incredibly annoying nasal shrieks rather than low, guttural moans, and the film clocks in an extremely underwhelming showing in the zombie category as well.

Ultimately, I find it hard to give World War Z any points at all beyond its opening scenes; the zombies aren’t scary, the humans aren’t memorable, and the plot isn’t doing anything worth mentioning. Even if they had forgone the insulting pretense at adaptation and more accurately entitled the movie Zoombies: The Quick And The Dead, the film would still be awful. My apologies to Mr. Pitt for poo-pooing all his hard work, but even if you love zombies, give this brainless, gutless mess a miss.

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