Max Brooke’s 2006 zombie novel, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, is widely regarded as a seminal genre work. A fantastic piece of world-building with a great political commentary, the novel has gained many fans in its short life span, fans who have waited eagerly for Marc Forster’s big budget movie adaptation.
The novel – with its pieced together style and epic scale, was always going to be difficult to film, and the production has been troubled – with disputes between cast and director and numerous rewrites during shooting. The final result – World War Z – isn’t quite the train wreck some have predicted, and stands as a movie with some merits. But it’s a movie which falls fairly short of its source material.
Aside from a few nods here and there – Israel’s wall, North Korea’s dentistry – there’s very little of the original novel in this movie. All of the political and social commentary has been stripped out, meaning that the film feels far safer than the book. Watching World War Z, you get the sense that the studio didn’t want to step on any toes, and so there’s a lack of real bite to the proceedings. This is a much more conventional narrative than the novel, with the plot here reduced to a single man – Gerry, played by Brad Pitt – attempting to pinpoint the plague’s origins in order to find a cure.
The globe-trotting nature of the narrative means that the film is reduced to a series of set-pieces, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as these individual moments are strong. The opening attack in Philadelphia is intense; showing very little, it builds fear by sheer on-screen chaos, allowing the audience to share the confusion and panic of the characters. It’s nice that the film doesn’t take it’s time getting into the action and the blistering opening sets the tone for what’s to follow – this is a very fast paced movie which never sits still.
Further great sequences involve a full-scale attack in Israel and a wonderfully upsetting plane hijacking. The film works some really horrifying images in and is at its best when thousands of zombies swarm the screen, with impressive long-distance shots of cities crumbling beneath crawling, spider-like undead bodies. The zombies here are relentless and convincing in their takeover – infection spreads so quickly and the creatures move so fast that the global meltdown feels convincing, and Forster is great in the epic, sweeping scenes of city-wide chaos. However, for a film called World War Z there’s actually quite little world war on show. The biggest and best of the film’s moments – Jerusalem – is a one off, and the film’s final (ending in Wales, of all places) is surprisingly low-key. Forster’s giant, in-your-face style doesn’t lead itself well to the quieter climax which feels like a poor man’s version of Jurassic Park’s kitchen scene. The film is also fairly toothless in its up-close portrayal of the undead and there’s a distinct lack of gore and violence for a zombie movie; again, this feels like a studio push and takes away from the horror on show.
The film has other problems, primarily with its characters. Pitt is going through the motions here and his character is pretty undefined. We never understand why he’s so important to the US government and his relationship with his paper-thin family (complete with two incredibly annoying daughters) is undeveloped – we don’t care about them and so it’s hard to really care about what’s happening. The central family core of the movie isn’t there and so the film lacks heart, which when combined with the lack of political edge and social commentary, makes the proceedings feel somewhat flat. Hints of society crumbling under tremendous pressure and fear (which Spielberg pulled off so well in his flawed by impressive War of the Worlds) are glimpsed at here, but again, not given any real depth to make an impact.
World War Z isn’t a bad film – it’s just quite lightweight and forgettable. It makes for an entertaining couple of hours in the cinema and is the sort of movie you’d watch if it was on TV, but it doesn’t really do the complex and interesting source material justice. The film ends however with a strong hint of sequel and it wouldn’t be surprising if the studio attempted to turn this into a franchise, using fractions of the novel from which to draw characters and scenes, not unlike the treatment the Resident Evil series was given in film form. Fans of the book will be disappointed and others may be left feeling a little let down, but this an entertaining, if throwaway, night out at the cinema.