What can I tell you about World War Z? It is a motion picture that exists. I paid money to see it. It has actors, dialogue, possibly a director, and may have even had a real script at some point. As legend has it, it was based on a book by Max Brooks.
I’m sure you’ve all heard the premise. People are being infected by a rage disease that’s spread by a bite from victim to victim. The scientists keep calling the pandemic a virus, but I’d argue it’s more like a parasite than anything. Frankly, there’s no real evidence that the “zombies” are even undead in the first place. You get bit, you convulse on the ground for a few seconds, and then you develop an insatiable biting fetish. Regardless, Brad Pitt is sent on a medical mystery tour to a bunch of nations onto which he is clearly trying to foist his geopolitical opinions. He wants to find a cure, and what he comes up with is a highly illogical and patently ridiculous stopgap. (Why the scientists couldn’t figure out over several weeks what he figures out in a matter of minutes is beyond me…I mean, if that’s the “solution” you’re going for then the scientists willfully ignored so much evidence that they should be tried for negligent homicide.)
On the way, he battles the zombie apocalypse with little more than a couple of magazines duct taped to his shins and forearms and a talent for making the loudest noises possible at the most inopportune moments. Note that Brad Pitt opts to protect his delicate calves rather than his thighs, where there is a major artery, or his neck, where there is a major artery, or his face, WHICH IS HIS FRAKKING FACE.
These zombies aren’t your typical cannibal corpses. They don’t eat people (or anything, from what I can tell, which begs the questions as to how they survive and what they intend to do after they’ve converted the global populace). The only way to spread the virus is through dental contact, not by bodily fluids or atmospheric contamination, which is just silly. To make matters more pathetic, the zombies are so inept that they can only hunt by sound. As long as you keep quiet you’re fine. Except when the plot dictates that they can smell you. Then they hunt by smell. But only until the plot remembers they’re supposed to hunt by sound.
WWZ’s “Zekes” seem to just like running around at top speed and nibbling exposed appendages for the sole purpose of spreading the disease. And that’s it. No ripping their victims apart in a feeding frenzy. In fact, there’s hardly any blood at all. Thank you MPAA and your asinine demands for a PG-13 rating. There’s an old story about how George Romero wrote Day of the Dead as this big budget trilogy finale, but when he was told to knock it down to PG-13 for a wider audience, he opted for a smaller budget and tons more gore. WWZ is what would’ve happened if Romero had conceded.
I won’t tell you if Brad Pitt dies at the end of WWZ or not, but keep in mind it is a PG-13 action movie in which he is the only major character. With every increasingly ludicrous, dangerous situation, he survives as long as he does because he’s the star. Everyone else dies because they aren’t the star, and if they live it’s because the movie either forgot about them or needed them to assist Brad Pitt with something important, like take a break during a zombie attack for a nice, refreshing Pepsi (HELLO GLARINGLY OBVIOUS PRODUCT PLACEMENT).
Did you ever read John Scalzi’s Redshirts? If you haven’t, it’s a great book and you should buy it immediately. In it there’s this thing called The Box. Whenever there’s a life or death problem, The Box dings out the answer right in the nick of time, no matter how nonsensical it is. Brad Pitt is a walking version of The Box. Everything that happens to him and every clue he uncovers is by perfectly timed luck. For a man who was supposed to be a really important dude in the UN, he relies far too much on happenstance and chance. The minor characters do all the intellectual heavy lifting, but Brad Pitt gets all the glory. Because he’s the star. Did you know Brad Pitt is the star? Brad Pitt Brad Pitt Brad Pitt.
Perhaps you noticed that I keep calling Brad Pitt’s character Brad Pitt. That’s because Brad Pitt isn’t playing a character, he’s playing Brad Pitt in a zombie action movie. His character is a complete blank. We get more personality out of the zombie he’s trapped in a room with at the end than we do out of the hero. You’d think the man who was largely responsible for this film making it out of arrested development, the man whose Plan B production company is running the show, the man who more or less handpicked the director would deign to attempt to act in his own movie. His only character-defining traits are his greasy hair and stupid scarf. I remember back in the day when Brad Pitt was a phenomenal actor.
The other characters are even less developed. Brad Pitt’s character has a family, but I couldn’t even begin to guess what their names were. Not that it matters anyway. Mireille Enos is completely wasted in her role. She does little more than fret on a cell phone and give Brad Pitt teary glances. His family exists to give the intro some emotional heft and, later, to force Brad Pitt to go off on his zombie cure journey. But, hell, you could’ve given him a beloved pet and gotten the same results. WWZ also cuts short James Badge Dale, Matthew Fox, Peter Capaldi, and David Morse, which would be egregious if it wasn’t so insulting.
Technically speaking, the movie is well-crafted. Director Marc Forster—like Zack Snyder and, on the lower end of the spectrum, Michael Bay—relies too much on spectacle and bombast at the expense of choreographed action. The shots of swarming zombies were intense. The sheer numbers were overwhelming, often too overwhelming. The more times they showed the zombie frenzy, and the more zombies added to it, the less emotional it became. A few hundred zombies chomping on hapless Philadelphians is one thing; a million of them attacking a city of faceless, nameless refugees is meaningless. There’s this shot that is clearly supposed to be the emotional punch of the second act, where Brad Pitt helicopters over a city being overrun, but the zombies are reduced to indistinguishable killing machines. It’s hard to feel bad about a bunch of ants attacking another bunch of ants.
After years of troubled production, rewrites by just about every screenwriter in Hollywood (the 2008 script that first got Brad Pitt on board was a very different movie than what eventually was thrown up on the big screen), and extensive reshoots, WWZ really is the epitome of “death by committee.” (For more schadenfreude, check out a recent Vanity Fair piece and an article from The Hollywood Reporter from last year) Historically speaking, movies that are this difficult to birth tend to either fail spectacularly or are instantly forgotten about upon release. Unfortunately, WWZ has only been out a few days and the studio has already secured a sequel. Fan-frakking-tastic.
World War Z is basically a cross between the worst episodes of The Walking Dead and The Andromeda Strain movie, and yet is somehow even less than the sum of its mediocre parts. It isn’t a crime against humanity, like, say, the Twilight movies, but it is an affront to the genre. And that’s coming from a huge zombie fanatic. There’s a reason I keep slogging through TWD every week. Zombies are such a great concept, and there’s so many different ways you can go. You can channel Romero and use them to comment on society’s ills, or Kirkman and talk about survival against all odds. You can make them a slow moving menace or a global plague, roamers or lurkers, curable or unkillable, undead or magically hexed…
The central premise of WWZ is actually pretty intriguing, and I suspect that it’s the bloodied remains of Brooks’ original conceit. His book is an “oral history of the zombie war,” which is a whole new direction for a zombie tale. But surrounding that fascinating kernel is a rotten movie. As long as you don’t think about the film’s shaky logic, question its unsupported assumptions, or get bored with its thoroughly defanged zombies, you’ll have a great time.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.