On the ground in Philadelphia to witness the worldwide zombie plague’s stateside debut, Marc Forster’s shakily filmed and frenetically edited opening to World War Z captures the situation’s chaos and confusion before giving way to a less disorienting style. The film’s storytelling, however, remains on somewhat flimsy ground, and though immensely entertaining, its rushed feel and convenient plotting keep the film from being more than a standard blockbuster.
In line with its budget-boosting PG-13 limitations, the large majority of World War Z’s deaths occur offscreen and the ones that do are mostly bloodless. Rather than go for gore, the film relies on other visual and auditory tricks to convey the situation’s terror. Seeing a human become infected and transform within 12 seconds, showcasing the grisly pop-and-lock dance moves of the newly undead, leaves a haunting mark as do up-close looks at these creatures, who resemble orcs from The Lord of the Rings films with their distorted features, grotesque mouths, and hungry, clicking teeth.
Indeed, the sound design may be the film’s true standout element, the raspy howls likewise echoing that of the Peter Jackson creations, though the imagery’s power multiplies with the number of monsters. When these athletic zombies sprint at their targets or, on one notable occasion, swarm like the killer ants from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the terror hits with impressive force even without a mess of bodily fluids.
Despite such an effectively established threat, the film rolls out convenient storytelling that essentially posits former U.N. VIP Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) as a harbinger of doom. Whenever our hero goes to a place that has either found a way to protect its citizens from the plague or has kept it at bay for a few days, within minutes of his arrival the situation goes to hell. The strangest of these trouble magnet situations occurs in Jerusalem where, all of a sudden, the zombies exhibit a new behavior, exposing a weakness in the city’s fortifications as if showing off for Gerry. Each set piece that his presence “inspires” is thankfully exciting and makes for wonderful entertainment, but the path there is more than a little flawed.
Similarly, the manner with which Gerry puts the apocalyptic pieces together to form an explanation is somewhat of a reach and, even worse, the temporary solution has the misfortune of mirroring that of After Earth…but since next to no one saw that sci-fi stink bomb, that’s hardly giving much away. Like its speedy repurposed corpses, World War Z generally moves fast enough that these narrative shortcomings don’t bog it down too much. Though Pitt’s name holds top-billing, the real stars are the zombies and the dangers they pose, and in realizing this point, Forster’s film is a popcorn-friendly success.
Rated PG-13 for intense frightening zombie sequences, violence and disturbing images.
World War Z is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.