By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Given how many times we’ve seen the world almost end, I figured “World War Z” would have to be “World War Zzzzzzz…”
Instead it’s one of the most enjoyable zillion-dollar state-of-the-tech horror/apocalypse movies I’ve ever seen.
“WWZ” begins routinely enough with a traffic jam in Philly. It happens, you know. But it doesn’t happen this way. The problem isn’t too many people on the road; it’s too many zombies, who flood the backed-up cars like a river devouring a flood plane.
And the emphasis, of course, is on devour. Or rather, One Big Bite. These running dead are like rabid animals…chomp down and move on. One fanboy complained in his blog “review” that one of the picture’s problems was that it didn’t show enough scenes of zombies eating people. Ah, the young folk…
Anyway, one of the few to escape the worse traffic jam this side of Godard’s “Weekend” is Brad Pitt, a former United Nations troubleshooter. His know-how handling U.N. hot spots entitles him and his family to a couple of bunks on board an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean — presumably the safest option available.
But safely has its price. To secure his wife and two young daughters’ spots, Pitt must return to Zombieland, i.e., the rest of the world, to find the virus’s cause and, more crucially, a cure.
We quickly learn two things. First, those who keep on the movie are likeliest to survive. Second, the bigger the city, the more dangerous the outbreak. As Pitt discovers, “The airlines were the perfect delivery system.”
The world’s nations deal with the Zombie Plague as befits their reputations (or clichés). In America, the best-connected get a spot on the aircraft carriers (though luck plays just as much of a part; the President has gone Zombie and the Veep is MIA).
In North Korea, since the virus is spread by bite, they’ve elected to pull everyone’s teeth. No bite, no problem.
And in Israel, where Pitt lands just long enough to come under a jaw-dropping attack, an enormous wall has been erected around Jerusalem. Shades of Jericho (as in Joshua fit the battle of) and/or the present-day Palestinian stalemate.
Working from Max Brooks’ (as in son of Mel and Anne Bancroft) best-seller, director Marc Forster hurls us into the breathless mayhem with astonishing speed and dexterity. The man behind such diverse films as the elegant “Finding Neverland” and the workman-like franchise plug-in, “Quantum of Solace,” he keeps the heart-pounding pace up by dividing the picture into different perilous segments, each with its own build-up and denouement.
Making it out of Philadelphia is just the start. Everyone regroups and then Pitt is sent off to a No Man’s Land in North Korea where grotesque images of bodies caught on barbed wire suggest the ancient horrors of “The Red Badge of Courage.” The set-piece in Jerusalem, with a tsunami of undead squirming up a wall like an invasion of fire ants, harkens back to the silent spectacle of “Noah’s Ark” — which used real people, not CGI, the result being hundreds of extras injured and three drowned.
Next is a last-flight-out nail-biter, followed by a sequence best described as Zombies Fly Coach. Easy to make jokes about it now, but when Forster traps us on a plane with something far worse than Samuel Jackson’s f*** snakes, every fear-of-flying nightmare explodes right in front of us.
Forster saves the best for last. Having finally made it to Wales where the World Health Organization is headquartered. Pitt discovers a group of very frightened scientists, all checking the security cameras focused on the ominous B Wing.
Contagion has turned the area into a modern-day Bedlam. Or perhaps, the Marquis de Sade and his Charenton all-stars. That is, the place is a sealed-off shock corridor where people once committed to fighting the virus have become its victims.
“World War Z” doesn’t break boundaries as much as it pokes around the dark corners of what huge summer movies are supposed to do. For example, Pitt partners with an Israeli soldier while in Jerusalem and her close-cropped hair echoes the inmates of Nazi concentration camps.
And here is a final surprise. “World War Z” is rated PG-13. That’s not meant as an invitation to round up the little ones…hmmm, take ‘em to “Monsters University” or that Pitt movie? The point is, this picture earns its tension and thrills the old-fashioned way —script, direction, acting — even as it glories in the most amazing scare tactics Hollywood’s techno-geniuses can create.
The audience where I caught “World War Z” actually applauded when it was all over. And these weren’t studio-hustled plants or screening-crazed whack jobs.
They were just movie-goers who knew they’d just had a helluva ride. My bet is, you will, too.