When I heard that Brad Pitt and World War Z director Marc Forster were not speaking as they feverishly re-shot the third act of this $190-million action film I expected the worst. Very loosely adapted from Max Brooks' historical record of the zombie war, World War Z saw as much behind-the-scenes drama as any recent blockbuster. Its release date was moved back seven months, and filmmakers scrapped a sprawling action sequence in Moscow that turned Pitt's U.N. investigator into a zombie-killing Rambo. It's a testament to Pitt and Forster, who may have been in over his head here, that the World War Z that arrived in theaters last summer is pretty good. There are definite signs of narrative traumas - underdeveloped characters and several unresolved plot lines - but World War Z embodies a forward momentum rarely articulated this successfully. The final act is smaller and more suspenseful than the rumored scrapped ending, and World War Z rises from the ashes with a story that can be continued in future films.
As of this writing, I'm about 50 pages from finishing Brooks' "World War Z." I understand the novel's popularity. Written like an oral historical record, "World War Z" features dozens of detailed accounts from the men and women who experienced the zombie war firsthand. The book jumps from Tibet to Tokyo to Israel and is both an amazing work of fiction and a scarily accurate prediction of what might happen should the dead rise. But, the book is patently un-filmable as written. One of the biggest criticisms of World War Z has been that it adapts its source in title only. That's not really true; World War Z takes the novel's narrator and makes him the protagonist. It also pulls piecemeal from the novel's accounts of the zombie war in Israel, North Korea and several other countries. Perhaps HBO could have adapted the novel into a miniseries, but Forster and company did a good job adapting the spirit of "World War Z" into a two-hour narrative film. Brooks is apparently happy with the result, and this adaptation actually allows future films to pull from other sections of the novel (Battle of Yonkers, anyone?!).
Now, back to the film: Pitt is Gerry Lane, a former United Nations investigator that left the field to spend more time with his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and girls, Rachel (Abigail Hargrove) and Constance (Sterling Jerins). World War Z wastes little time plunging the Lanes into a chaotic Philadelphia square overrun with zombies. Gerry's old friend, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena), rescues the family and flies them to a safe zone aboard a U.S. Navy vessel. Protection is a hot commodity, and Gerry is strong-armed into returning to the field so his family can stay aboard the ship. Gerry and a young virologist (Elyes Gabel) fly to Camp Humphreys in South Korea to search for "Patient Zero" and find the source of the outbreak. There, they discover a ragtag band of survivors, led by Captain Speke (James Badge Dale), and learn that Israel might have known about the impending crisis long before the rest of the world.
Impressive in scope and momentum, World War Z wastes little time lingering in any one location. That's not to say the story feels rushed; the film and its protagonist move with the urgency one would expect of someone trying to save millions from annihilation. Even when the film's scope is at its widest, World War Z focuses on the action immediately surrounding Gerry. Viewers get the sense that the shit has hit the fan everywhere (we see a bit of this in the closing credits) but World War Z takes few detours away from its fast-evolving hero. Things move to Israel, which has constructed a containment wall around Jerusalem, and Gerry learns from the director of Mossad that Israel intercepted communications between Indian generals in which they described battling the living dead months before the outbreak spread to the Western world. Jerusalem's oasis of safety is short-lived, as zombies find a way to infiltrate the city, which sends Gerry and a young Israeli solider (Daniella Kertesz) scurrying for safety.
Those hoping for zombie carnage in the vein of George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead or 28 Days Later will likely be disappointed with the mostly gore-free action. But, as much as I wish Paramount would spend $200 million on a bloody, R-rated film, that's just not reality. The lack of gore isn't a huge problem; the film finds a few creative ways to imply the carnage and the zombies (or Zekes or Zachs or Zeds) are mostly supporting characters anyway. When the dead change, they thrash about as their skin and eyes change color before jumping up ready to kill. Brooks doesn't explicitly say zombies can run in his book, but the undead can run like hell in World War Z. There's no sneaking by the undead here. They will find you and take you out.
As expected, Pitt is a charismatic lead. His acting prestige helps the film gloss over a few of its weaker story points, and Pitt is able to sell the strained relationship with his character's family in a few short scenes. The supporting cast is strong if mostly unchallenged. The best of the bunch is Kertesz, who makes a convincingly stoic partner for Gerry. Her character helps Gerry arrive in one piece to the World Health Organization research facility where the final act is staged. Keep a sharp eye out for Matthew Fox, who plays a U.S. Navy Seal but was mostly cut from the final film. Fox was to factor into the story when Gerry went to Moscow in the scrapped third act. It was a bold decision for the filmmakers to toss so much footage but apparently necessary when they watched Pitt slicing his way through hoards of zombies in Moscow's Red Square. The final act as released is a quieter, more realistic conclusion to the film. Instead of giving Pitt's investigator unexplained combat skills, World War Z allows him a more cerebral defense against the undead.
The production was troubled but World War Z turned a healthy profit, and a sequel is already in production. I think future films could be tighter and pull more substantially from Brooks' novel, as there is plenty of story left to explore. World War Z is very entertaining, with plenty of suspense, and Pitt clearly worked hard off-screen and on to make sure the final product came together. The film is a bit disjointed at times, and fans loyal to Brooks' novel will no doubt wish World War Z had stuck a bit more closely to its source. This one came together against all odds; let's hope the next one is a bit more polished.
The 2.40:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer replicates the theatrical experience. World War Z is not the sharpest, most vibrant film released last summer, but the transfer handles the gritty, fast-moving action well. There's a bit of smearing here and there during fast pans, but this is likely not the fault of the transfer. Detail is strong, even when Forster uses a softer focus, and colors are nicely saturated. World War Z shifts from a rather drab Philadelphia to the warm reds and yellows of Israel to the chilly, green/blue hue of Wales, and the transfer handles all locales well. Black levels are good, if slightly grey in spots, and skin tones are natural. Sharpness and background detail are noticeably and intentionally expanded in the final act.
The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is a doozy. There's plenty of subwoofer support throughout this bass-heavy mix, which maintains appropriate balance between dialogue, effects and musical cues. The early zombie chaos of Philadelphia is given active surround support; glass breaks, cars wreck and people scream in agony throughout the sound field. Later, airplane engines hum, bullets ricochet and zombies growl from all corners of the room. This immersive mix features plenty of directional effects and dialogue, and the soundtrack is deep and perfectly separated throughout the channels. French, Spanish and Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks are included, as are English, English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc "combo pack" includes the Blu-ray, a DVD copy of the film and an insert to redeem UltraViolet and iTunes-compatible digital copies. The Blu-ray includes a new, 123-minute unrated cut of the movie that restores a bit of trimmed gore. The 116-minute theatrical cut appears on the DVD only. The discs are packed in a Blu-ray eco-case, which is wrapped in a flat, glossy slipcover.
As with Star Trek Into Darkness, Paramount has made available additional bonus features via several retailer exclusives. Wal-Mart is offering an hour of exclusive streaming content on Vudu; Target has an exclusive slipbox and art book; and Best Buy got an exclusive slipcover and streaming content. Fortunately, the bonus material is a bit more extensive than on Star Trek Into Darkness. Those looking for behind-the-scenes dirt on the film's production aren't going to find it here, however, and Pitt has little to add about the film. That scrapped ending? I doubt we'll ever see it.
Praise to the film gods, World War Z somehow made it to the screen in one piece, and it's a pretty entertaining movie to boot. The troubled production saw the film's entire third act get scrapped for a more intimate story arc in Wales, but lead Brad Pitt helps viewers suspend some disbelief over the story's narrative hiccups. World War Z strays from the structure of Max Brooks' source novel but is still a suspenseful, entertaining ride from start to finish. Pitt is an excellent protagonist, and further adventures in the zombie war have a solid storyline to expand. Recommended.