As last week’s Man of Steel proved, the weight of expectation can have a considerable effect on your overall feelings of a film. We’re at the other end of the scale this week for World War Z. A film whose very long production history has been plagued my many well documented troubles. The most significant of which was the revelation last year that the film had an apparently incoherent conclusion, and required the hiring of two new high-profile writers to script a new ending, for which seven weeks of re-shoots were scheduled, long after the film had originally wrapped.
After all of these problems, when World War Z is eventually released, many years after its original announcement, it not being a total disaster comes as a pleasant surprise.
And that’s what you could say about the film really; ‘hey, it’s actually not that bad after all’.
The film is based on a well-respected novel by Max Brooks. The book is subtitled ‘An Oral History of The Zombie War’, it is made up of a series of vignettes, interviews conducted with multiple survivors post-war. This gave Brooks a chance to explore aspects of a global zombie outbreak that couldn’t be easily done in a conventional narrative.
This film however, has taken the title and global zombie apocalypse idea and left practically everything else behind. Now, the story is not a retrospective and centres entirely around a UN investigator played by Brad Pitt. This is an unashamed, deliberate attempt to take interesting and original source material and turn it into a standard, unremarkable action movie.
This is the first real A-list, blockbuster zombie film and has had a giant budget provided for it to break new ground for the sub-genre. To be fair, while most zombie films are restricted to confined settings, we do get a sense of the global scale here. Pitt travels to various continents in search of the outbreak’s source (though didn’t seem to actually film there as the Korea-set segment is in total darkness at all times). The set-piece when it really pulls all the stops out is a giant battle in Jerusalem, showing a hoard of zombies larger than ever seen before (though they’re clearly CG). The film has opted not for Romero-type zombies but for super-fast ones more similar to the Dawn of the Dead remake or 28 Days Later… .
For the most part, these sequences are well handled, but the film does have a PG-13 problem. It’s no surprise that Paramount would want to get the kids in the cinemas too but the film is about a zombie apocalypse. We rarely see zombies killing anyone at all and when we do it’s completely blood and gore free. Numerous kills, both zombie related and otherwise, occur either out of frame or off screen entirely. This is all very obviously done for financial, not artistic reasons and serves to make the zombies (and they are called that in the film) far less frightening. Indeed, you wouldn’t really call this a horror film at all.
What about the film’s terrible story problems that resulted in the re-writes and re-shoots then? It’s very clear when watching it that where the new final section begins. It’s different from much of what came before and is more akin to previous zombie films, taking place in a confined location (this time in Wales (yay!)). It does feel somewhat disconnected from the rest of the film, but it’s quite a good sequence that could frankly function perfectly well as its own zombie short film.
World War Z doesn’t reinvent the zombie film, or really have anything new to add to the table, but it functions efficiently as a typical Hollywood disaster epic that just happens to feature zombies, and in the end, that’s probably just what the unambitious studio wanted.