Moaning, gumbling, groaning… in the run-up to World War Z’s release, the pundits made more noise than the zombies.
Rumours were ugly and a dirt-dishing piece in Vanity Fair brought them to wider attention: Brad Pitt was allegedly no longer speaking to director Marc Foster (Quantum Of Solace), the budget was ballooning towards the $200m mark, and everyone hated the original ending. After it was pushed back six months for extensive re-shoots, everyone braced for a bomb. Branded the Ishtar of zombie movies, World War Z looked likely to be DOA.
For fans of Max Brooks’ epic, episodic 2006 novel World War Z: An Oral History Of The Zombie War, this was doubly disappointing. The globe-trotting bestseller had finely balanced its page-turning tension with a smart geo-political commentary and a sense that big bureaucratic structures aren’t always nimble enough to react to on-the-ground crises.
World War Z, the movie, isn’t that book – but it’s not the disaster everyone was anticipating, either. By ditching the novel’s flashback interviews and slow-moving dead, it delivers something more conventional yet visually astounding. Pitt, who stars and produces through his production company Plan B, saw the novel’s potential early on, beating out Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way for the rights.
Yet Pitt’s dream of a tentpole outing that was “a Trojan horse for socio-political problems” (as he told Hollywood Reporter back in January) didn’t materialise. Instead, World War Z stands as the first blockbuster zombie movie: a $200m take on a genre traditionally thought of as low-rent, disreputable and made for chump change.
In terms of pure spectacle, World War Z amazes. Opening with UN troubleshooter Gerry Lane (Pitt) and his family trapped in Philadelphia gridlock as the outbreak hits, it’s paced even faster than its rabid ghouls. Within minutes Lane is ferrying his wife (Mireille Enos) and kids through anarchy, pursued by raging virulents with hyena pounces and a nasty habit of attacking car windshields with their foreheads.
Like the Dawn Of The Dead remake (2004), its frenetic action is breathless and breathtaking – an unforgiving vision of just how precarious is all that we hold dear. In the global paper chase that follows, Lane tracks down the outbreak’s origins for the UN.
Globetrotting to Korea, Israel and, um, Wales, Foster delivers stunningly destructive set-pieces rivalling Roland Emmerich’s back catalogue: zombies vs commuters on Philly streets; a helicopter extraction from a tenement rooftop infested with ‘Zeds’; an outbreak at 30,000 feet.
Biggest of all is the Israel sequence where zombies pile on top of one another like ants to breach a security wall and invade Jerusalem. It’s one of the most memorable sequences in the entire film – not only because of its fast-moving CGI horde but also because it’s so politically crass.
You’d be mad to expect subtlety from a $200m movie, though. Sanitised, bloodless and fixated on the bottom line, World War Z is both the biggest zombie movie ever made and arguably the end of zombie cinema as we know it. The book’s political bite has been extracted as ruthlessly as the teeth pulled from North Korean citizens to stop the outbreak from spreading.
The rewritten, reshot ending essays caution too. It swaps Pitt’s character leading a military charge into the zombie horde in Moscow’s Red Square for a quieter, Splinter Cell-style stealth sequence inside a zombie-infested WHO laboratory in Wales. It’s abrupt, disjointed and tonally awkward. It’s also totally risk-averse.
The original ending worried the studio, with good reason. Sure, it reportedly had lots of zombie-bashing spectacle, but its emotional tone was much darker, with Gerry becoming more brutal in the wake of an emotional apocalypse. Compare that to the relatively more misty-eyed ending of the finished film – which also lays the ground for a sequel.
Will a follow-up happen? Of course it will. After all, World War Z did unexpectedly well, audiences forgiving its missteps and plot-holes for the chance to see the zombie apocalypse play out in IMAX 3D. Worldwide, it’s earned more than $530m, toppling Troy as Brad Pitt’s all-time top earner.
Zombies themselves are big business – in 2011 it was reported that they’re worth an estimated $5.74billion to the global economy (taking into account movies, DVDs, games, comic books, merchandise, etc…).
How ironic that the zombie – once used in Romero’s classic movies to critique consumerism – is now one of pop culture’s biggest earners. Zombies, once the great unwashed of cinema, have gone mainstream.
It’s not the heftiest extras package: six featurettes if you buy Blu (only two on the DVD), each of them under 10 minutes. Origins and Looking To Science are pre-production overviews, while the BD-only remainder (Outbreak, The Journey Begins, Behind The Wall and Camouflage) delve into the movie’s raison d’etre: the swarming, (sub)human-pyramid set-pieces.
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