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Movie review: 'Z' breaks from zombie movie tradition

Posted: June 26, 2013 - 3:46pm

“World War Z”

Plan B Entertainment

1 hour, 56 minutes

The few times the word “Zombie” is uttered in this week’s dramatic apocalyptic thriller “World War Z,” it’s done with that particular tone of voice that tells the listener, “Yes, I know it’s ridiculous, but just hear me out.” In that sense, “Z” is almost an anti-zombie movie, though that doesn’t make it any less scary.

I found “World War Z” very entertaining, but hardcore fans of the book version of Max Brooks’ modern classic may be disappointed. The novel was set up as series of first-person accounts describing the history of and the underlying causes of a recent global catastrophe. In the book, the war is over and won, and what is left is for a United Nations researcher to understand it all. It’s a very good book, and, despite a few key scenes, remarkably uncinematic.

The film takes a different position. It offers up a narrative of the war in a much more conventional way, placing our researcher, Gerry, directly in the middle of the conflict instead of seeing it from afar. Brad Pitt is Gerry Lane, officially retired as a UN conflict zone investigator, but thrust back in to the mix when his hometown of Philadelphia is abruptly overrun by what first appears to be a particularly virulent form of rabies.

This is where “World War Z” and more conventional zombie films break company, and where this film feels much more like a contagion movie than a horror one. The “zombies” in this movie act more like individual viral bodies, making up a larger plague sweeping the populace. After being infected, the victim becomes manic and completely focused on biting any uninfected person in their path. But that’s one bite and move on. No entrails, no brains, no horrible gore. These creatures are wholly focused on spreading the disease, nothing more — not that that’s not horrible enough.

After a harrowing night hiding out in an apartment complex in Newark, Gerry and his family are rescued and taken to a floating armada where the last vestiges of U.S. authority are being consolidated. It turns out that the pandemic is world-wide, but Gerry is asked to accompany a young hotshot virologist to South Korea to try to track down the source, patient zero, in hopes of coming up with a vaccine. This is just the beginning of a terrifying journey across the globe that, with any luck, will bring the world closer to a cure.

I know the production on this film was plagued with problems, with starts and restarts, with bad buzz, with reshoots, but through it all Brad Pitt has stuck with the project, determined to make it happen, and after seeing the final product, I can see why. This is a thrilling movie, filled to the brim with heart-pounding action and moments of heroism and heartbreak.

There have been complaints among the zombie genre loving crowd that the film is too sanitized, too PG-13, to be any good, but I completely disagree. The fact that this isn’t a conventional zombie movie is, in my mind, a good thing. That genre has been done to death lately, and “Z” falls much more in line with films like “Outbreak” or “Contagion,” though done on a global scale with a blockbuster budget.

As far as whether this should be R instead of PG-13, I suppose that’s debatable. Most of the violence is off-screen, though violence still. There are lots of scary sequences, but this is no scarier or more violent than any other PG-13 movie out there, and significantly less than some. There’s an argument to made that maybe all these movies, “Z” included, should be R, but going with the status quo, it’s appropriately rated.

I’m glad they didn’t get an R, actually. I think with the stronger rating the filmmakers would have gone ahead and included much more blood and gore because, why not? It’s what the zombie fans want, but it would have fundamentally damaged the seriousness and intelligence of the movie.

One of the things I like about the film is perhaps also one of its failings. Gerry travels all over the world and comes in contact with a large cast of characters. It keeps things moving at a steady clip and varies the kind of action throughout the movie, making it feel much longer, in a good way, than it actually is.

On one hand, globe trotting and character jumping makes it difficult for deep characterization on the part of the screen writers. Some characters get short shrift, like the hispanic boy who joins the Lane family after his own clan is infected, as well as Gerry’s own daughters, who play heavily into our hero’s emotional agenda, but are never properly fleshed out for the audience.

On the other hand, small roles, such as a World Health Organization doctor played marvelously by Pierfrancesco Favino are given great weight by a few simple lines. As well, I loved Gerry’s wife, played by Mireille Enos, an actress I was completly unfamiliar with. Her performance is very spare, but even though she doesn’t have a lot to do, is utterly arresting. I liked that she is shown to be completly Gerry’s equal, rather than an ornament for hunky Brad Pitt.

I was somewhat disappointed that — spoiler alert — the movie ends with the promise of a sequel. On the one hand, I’d be more than happy to re-enter this world. Brad Pitt, as usual, is great, and is an able tour guide.

But a big-budget zombie movie with very few actual zombies is an expensive gamble, and on the off-chance that it doesn’t pay off, this story will be left unfinished. That would be a shame, because this is one World War I’d like to see through to the end.

Grade: A-

“World War Z” is rated PG-13 for some pretty intense scares, soldier on zombie violence, and language.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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