You know you’ve racked up some serious mortal mileage when you can remember watching the film that started it all—George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead—with your best friends in an old-fashioned movie theater (not a multiplex and definitely not while wearing plastic 3-D glasses). We were smalltown smartasses but I’m fairly sure none of us suspected the shoestring production would one day be selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry as a work deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Or that it would spawn a profitable franchise, much less a whole new genre.
We were too busy laughing to comprehend the aesthetic significance of what was happening on that screen. Laughing at the prospect of a character actually falling victim to lumbering members of the undead who, while creepy, clearly possessed zero capacity for organization and whose maximum velocity was maybe a stumbling two miles per hour.
It’s been nearly a half century since that night and a lot has changed. My friends have remained essentially the same, hairlines notwithstanding, but today’s zombie bears minimal resemblance to Romero’s. The walking dead are new and improved. As reimagined in movies such as Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), they’re not only fleet of foot but increasingly inclined toward global domination.
The theater of battle between the living and undead has expanded incrementally from a single family dwelling in N.O.T.L.D. to a shopping mall in its 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead and, by the time we get to Boyle’s film, the entire metropolis of London. So it was only a matter of time before zombies took over the planet, which is the premise of World War Z, Marc Forster’s (Stranger Than Fiction) $200 million adaptation of Max Brooks’ 2006 bestseller.
Brad Pitt plays a former UN investigator who reluctantly leaves his family behind when government officials convince him the fate of humankind rests upon his very particular set of skills. Like much of the movie, the first act is a combination of spectacular visuals and sloppy storytelling. A tidal wave of twitching, flesh-eating freaks flooding a Philadelphia boulevard has no trouble getting one’s attention but begs the question: How did the zombie apocalypse bring civilization to the brink of collapse without average citizens hearing a word about it on CNN? By the time Pitt’s debriefed, the president’s already dead and world capitals have for the most part “gone dark.” The film’s writers, as Ricky Ricardo would say, “have some ‘splainin’ to do.”
The first two acts maintain this mix of stunning effects (thousands of zombies scramble over the walls around Jerusalem by creating a ladder of bodies) and pinheaded narrative. When Pitt asks his guide what prompted Israel to prepare for attack while the rest of the world scoffed at rumors of an invasion, the answer is beyond silly.
Forster & Co. reshape their source material into a Contagion-style race against the clock with Pitt scouring the globe in search of “patient zero,” in the hope of finding the secret to survival, then abruptly abandon the conceit in the final act. We’re presumably not supposed to notice but the picture’s a-ha moment has virtually nothing to do with the fact-finding that’s led up to it. Pitt’s character makes a completely inexplicable leap, one he could’ve made without ever getting off his couch.
The filmmakers deserve credit for not spending more of that $200 million blowing stuff up. Well, actually they did but then reshot a subtler ending. And Pitt gives a credible performance despite a so-so supporting cast and a highly questionable haircut. While the picture’s plot holes are barely outnumbered by its legion of undead, World War Z is exhilarating in places and easily the most epic contribution to the genre to date. Zombie films have gotten bigger since 1968. Of that there’s zero doubt. Whether they’ve really gotten better is another question altogether.