World War Z

World War Z (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Gruesome shots of limbs getting severed, getting shot in the head point-blank, stabbings, slashings, and beheadings are dime a dozen in horror movies, certainly in zombie flicks, but for some reason one of the images that has stuck with me since seeing Bruce McDonald’s “Pontypool” is the way a virus-infected zombie continues to smash its face and body, seemingly insensitive to pain, onto a bulletproof glass in a desperate attempt to get through it only so it can infect more people. A few early shots of “World War Z,” loosely based on a novel by Max Brooks, reminded me of that image, the sheer insanity of the crazed undead bashing their skull through solid objects just so they can take a bite out of an uninfected.

Those looking for copious blood will be disappointed. While some of it is seen–drops can be observed on the face or stains on clothing–the usage of the dependable red goo is minimized. This is a welcome divergence from the norm because the material is forced to focus on increasing the ante for thrills and suspense. But to expect Marc Forster’s “World War Z” to share the same bloodline as Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later…” simply because of the fast-running zombies is a mistake. It takes a more globe-trotting approach which almost makes it a long lost cousin of Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion.”

What works well is the staging of mass panic and the way it is directed. The first big scene takes place in the busy streets of Philadelphia as Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), formerly an investigator for the United Nations, is driving his family (Mireille Enos, Sterling Jerins, Abigail Hargrove) to school and work. It starts off with a curiosity: news about somewhere far away, a radio announcement citing a rabies outbreak in Taiwan. Just as it ends, the outbreak is seen right outside the vehicle: people sprinting against traffic, cops in motorcycles driving to the source of the problem with hopes of containing it, and then the deafening terrorized screams.

When I was a kid, anthills would form in my family’s backyard, right next to a mango tree. Observing the hardworking tiny creatures from a good distance gets boring after a while so, as entertainment, I would pour water on and around the fire ants’ homes. Their sting was hell, but the few seconds of them scattering about seemed like magic to me. The number of ants that came out of a mound amazed me. In here, the overhead shots of panicked and confused people running all over the city reminded me of the poor ants I tortured. To this day, I still think that the image of quiescence turning into complete chaos all of a sudden is neat.

For a movie with millions of expensive CGI zombies, they get old real quick. While visually impressive when seeing them move as a group, especially during the intense action sequence in sun-soaked majesty of Jerusalem, I wanted to see more of the undead up and close and personal. I wanted to marvel at the levels of putrefaction, if they are missing body parts, if some of them are children or older folks. Sometimes less in more and there are moments, mostly in the middle, when I grew tired of seeing them swarm.

This is why I enjoyed the second half. After Gerry is contacted by his former employer to find the source of the outbreak so scientists can understand how the virus works–if the disease is indeed triggered by a virus–and make a vaccine, eventually he ends up in a medical facility… and with a theory. Instead of continuing to use weapons like grenades, pistols, and rifles to get from Point A to Point B, the film changes gears. It must then function on a different level of tension. It should be recognized that it is uncommon for horror-thrillers, especially commercial ones, to undergo–or even attempt–a change of pace. It is a risk because there is a possibility that drastic changes in mood or tone can alienate viewers.

What does not work completely is the way it ends: it feels too abrupt and yet the narration tries to explain it all. I felt that there is pressure on the film to remain to have a running time of just below two hours. It is a shame because it needed at least fifteen to twenty minutes more to deliver a smoother falling action and an ending that feels right for itself. I am fairly certain that there is a great movie inside “World War Z.” However, what is up on screen is only slightly above average–entertaining but not immersive.

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