Brad Pitt and His Stubble Saves Us All in ‘World War Z’

Horror fans had plenty of reason to worry about World War Z.

Early reports suggested it had become a drifting derelict of a production. Originally set to hit theatres in December 2012, the studio ordered up $20 million worth of rewrites and reshoots. In fact, the entire third act bears no resemblance to what director Marc Forster originally shot.

The vultures seemed to be circling, but horror fans have more specific concerns. Although zombie hoards have moved across the pop culture landscape for the last decade, this is really the first full-blown, big budget mainstream attempt to bring the zombie apocalypse to the screen as a blockbuster film. Genre films have been at the task for a while, indeed for decades. Popular television, video games and comics have supplemented zombie mania. But this was the first big summer release built around America’s monster du jour.

The undead’s iconic status in genre fiction means that there’s a kind of zombie canon. The interlocking but discrete texts that make up this sprawling tradition are, much like in a religious framework, filled with conflict and debate. What a zombie is, what a zombie does, how you kill it, where they come from… answers to these questions are cobbled together from the work of grand master George Romero, Danny Boyle’s reimaginings and offshoots of the tradition like the Resident Evil video games and film series or Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels.

What would Forster do with this mass of material and a monster that so many love? Quantum of Solace, his previous big budget film, provided exactly zero clues. Monsters Ball represents the real triumph of his career, although its very much an actor’s film rather than a auteurist vision.

Moreover, we knew early that Max Brooks’ brilliant novel served primarily as a kind of brand name for the film rather than its basis. This was disappointing, especially since Brooks’ “oral history of the zombie war” used Stud Terkel’s The Good War as its inspiration for a different kind of horror tale. Worst of all, word circulated that Forster had no conception of what he wanted his monsters even to look like.

This seeming lack of vision resulted in the decision to build the story on Brad Pitt as retired action hero with the idea of, as Foster says in a featurette, of bringing focus to a novel otherwise unfilmable because of its episodic nature. But, wait, film can’t do that?

Perhaps not, at least if its a film that aspires to blockbuster status. So much of what happens here has that feeling, a movie that wants to give us a lot of explosions and a giant panorama of unfolding disaster.

All of that said, World War Z manages somehow to be a really entertaining film. Yes, it’s a big, loud summer movie but it’s probably the best of the lot this year.

Forster and his producers bring a pathos to the fall of cities rather than what sometimes feels like gleeful destruction on the part of other filmmakers.

The reshoots certainly helped if they made this a quieter movie in the third act. After the horrific opening sequence in Philadelphia, the much talked about zombie siege and fall of Jerusalem, it really worked to bring everything down to a small, dare I say Romero-like, set piece that’s tense, taunt and even a bit scary.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s still plenty of inexplicable, jarring nonsense. Making Pitt’s “Gerry Lane” the main character has the effect of making us, against our will, deeply concerned with the fate of his upper-middle class white family as a global apocalypse kills billions. As Pitt globetrots in search of a way to reign in the pandemic, hundreds of thousands die around him as Latino families, American soldiers and Israeli commandos give their life so that the scruffy male savior might continue his crusade.

Also, as a side note, we are expected to believe that a “UN investigator” who spent time in Liberia, documented Chechen war crimes and generally ran around being some kind of secret agent/ninja for the UN doesn’t know how to speak Spanish and needs a ten year old translator.

The big question for many horror fans, put off by the film’s approach and maybe especially by its PG-13 rating, is whether or not the Unrated version throws them, literally, some red meat. The set includes this “director’s cut” that runs about ten minutes longer than the theatrical release.

First of all, lets be clear that this is not really the “director’s cut,” the version that Forster first showed Paramount that they hated. It would have been a treat to see the original ending, or at least bits of it, but that’s not happening yet and maybe ever.

What we get instead is a slightly extended version of several zombie attacks that, in the theatrical release, the cameras show and then quickly pan away. There are a few more headshots and bits of craziness that do make the fall of Jerusalem more intense, including some blood spurting like a geyser in one of the film’s key scenes.

Otherwise, there’s not much new. I suspect hardcore horror fans who didn’t like World War Z the first time around will remain unimpressed by this version. In fact, the “Unrated” cut still feels like it would fall into the PG-13 range.

Paramount made an annoying, if nowadays fairly common, decision with this Blu-ray/DVD combo. Essentially you get the Unrated version in high definition and the second DVD features the theatrical version in standard def. Perhaps this wont matter that much to most viewers since the two versions are so close anyway that watching one is essentially watching the other.

The special features are generally excellent. The Blu-ray disc contains two short featurettes that run about eight minutes each. The first, “Origins”, explores the germination of the film. It disappoints. This would have been the place to hear more about the film’s original ending and maybe see a few clips. Instead, it’s all praise for Brad Pitt, cloying praise after a certain point. On the other hand, this is the only special feature that really gives a strong nod to Max Brooks and the source material.

The second, “Looking to Science”, compellingly examines our current fascination with disease vectors and the science behind pandemics that influenced the creation of the zombies of World War Z. It features entomologist David Hughes talking about the “zombie ants” of the Brazilian rain forest that are controlled by parasite fungi. This blending of science with our zombie fears is interesting on its own terms and also suggests the inspiration for the insect-like zombie mobs of the film.

Another special feature, WWZ Production includes four short featurettes that detail the major hinges of the film narrative. Here we learn more here about why the film felt so much like a real world. Forster filmed scenes on the U.S.S. Argus, the aircraft carrier that becomes the nerve center for the human resistance, on an actual carrier in dry dock. Many of the crowd scenes are actually hundreds of extras instead of simple CGI mush (though there’s some of that here and there).

The limitations of the film cannot overwhelm the inherent power of the zombie genre and some of the filmmaker’s genuinely good decisions. I dare even the most jaded horror fan, suspicious of big budget Hollywood and all its works, to keep their heart rate down at the opening sequence in New York City when the streets explode with fear during the first signs of the outbreak.

At the very least, the film’s exploration of our fear of pandemic tells us something about the reasons for the zombie zeitgeist. But, and maybe most important, its just a lot of fun.

RATING 6 / 10