Hunkered down with the living dead scraping at the door Brad Pitt’s Gerry Lane states, “Movement is life.” For over a decade that’s exactly what the Zombie genre has been doing, moving relentlessly forward, shoving a broken mirror right up to the bloody face of American society, replacing the Western as its barometer.
Reflected in that fractured reality is 9/11, The War on Terror, Afghanistan, Iraq, Katrina, economic meltdown, gun-control (or lack of), reality television, the internet, disease, illegal immigration, racism, and any other allegorical tale that can be reanimated into a shambling corpse.
Zombies are humanity, consuming both our flesh and morality. We revel in their physical destruction, morbidly fascinated at how their sheer weight of numbers will ultimately lead us into that “undiscovered country” from which they have returned. And if we do manage to survive their rotting onslaught, our petty human rivalries will be our final undoing.
Whilst “The Walking Dead” television series ruthlessly dissects this fragile survivor dynamic, Max Brooks’ novel “World War Z” uses chilling accurate geopolitics to predict his fictional global catastrophe. Both stand at the zenith of the zombie genre. Their subtle complexity and absolute commitment to make audiences suspend their disbelief and think not, “If” but “When” will the dead rise, are startling achievements.
The film of “World War Z” was always going to be a daunting prospect; finally a blockbuster horror movie with an A-list star at the helm and a stellar budget. A Darwinian title sequence has sinister promise, menacing like the opening credits of David Cronenberg’s “The Dead Zone.” Ants swarm devouring all life before them, media junkies oblivious, the metaphor is clear, the audience expectant.
Handsome Brad has hung up his spurs, a domestic god serving pancakes to his wife and two daughters. He made it through the doorway in a way that John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards never could. Brad’s Gerry Lane is an ex United Nations investigator with a haircut that Max Brooks’ “Zombie Survival Guide” would recommend him to keep closely cropped so that ghouls can’t grab him by it and chew his multi-million dollar face off.
The Lane clan are blissfully happy, the very antithesis of Romero’s nihilistic vision of the American family, eaten from within by jealousy, failure and youth. Still, as intrigued, as we are, a nagging sense of disappointment spreads slowly into our subconscious. Brad the actor has defeated Brad the producer, this will be nothing like the book. No multiple worldwide narratives, no global episodic structure featuring unconnected characters.
No, Brad will lead from the front and save the day like John Wayne did before he reinvented himself. You know his family will make it. That’s not to say that the set pieces aren’t impressive. The initial panic in Philadelphia evokes confusion and dread, the zombies rarely seen in close up, a supermarket in the process of being looted a terrifying prospect. We’ve seen a zombie outbreak countless times but never on this scale and much of it is breathtaking.
Brad flies between aircraft carriers, South Korea, Israel and Wales looking for the source of the outbreak. The zombies attack in the millions desperate for blood and guts yet surprisingly light on the gore front. Some of the plot points are weak; a key character shoots themselves in the head by accident revealing the difficulties the production had in stringing together a cohesive narrative from a deeply intelligent novel.
The third act is a tense, interior story at odds with the truly apocalyptic fall of Israel; a lazy postscript montage of cut footage begs the audience to give “World War Z” the benefit of the doubt and green light a second film. Brad’s tacked on narration has echoes of Churchill’s “The End of the Beginning” speech but even if the franchise continues into the hoped for trilogy, you can’t help but feel that “World War Z” is the “Beginning of the End” for the zombie genre as this juggernaut finally stops moving forward. For now.