24 June 2013

Review: World War Z

(Dir: Marc Forster, 2013)

I'm going to kick this review off with this obvious debate - slow zombies vs fast zombies. Fast zombies, although not exactly a new invention if you explore the annals of classic b-movies, really came to prominence this century mostly thanks to 28 Days Later. That film was successful from a visual perspective due to Anthony Dod Mantle's bleak realist cinematography, but the crazed running "infected" somewhat jarred if you were expecting actual zombies (by which I mean traditional). Reinvention of our fears and our horror icons is par for the course, but aside from the intensity of the prologue in 28 Weeks Later or the entirety of [rec], which realised the visceral claustrophobia of shooting first person handheld in a dark closed environment under attack, these faster zombies have been less than satisfying. At times they just seem like infected people rather than the cold corpses that zombies started out as.

So what is it about slow zombies? There's a hopelessness and despair in their aimless lumbering. Humanity feels like it's sinking into a vacant rotting nothingness. But more importantly when they attack it's like a slow suffocating horror, as victims are overpowered in almost slow motion before being ripped to shreds. It's surely like the realisation of drowning; unable to escape as a crushing weight envelopes and takes everything away from you. There's an elemental doom in such a demise that isn't felt with fast zombies, who are more akin to life on the African plains; all adrenalin fueled hunting as a necessity. They suit society's continual degradation of patience and need for everything now, but really what is there to differentiate them from that crazy chainsaw wielding maniac (or similar) doggedly chasing teenagers?

World War Z, by going down the route of the fast zombie, never really feels like a zombie film until a well executed climatic sequence. The zombies are almost inconsequential to the whole film, bearing in mind everything plays out like a world-ending virus and the marketing seems keen to distance itself from the z word, yet the film itself is at pains to make sure we know these are meant to be zombies. The biggest problem is the way they move, in fast, violent, almost unnatural motions that smack of cgi. There's nothing less scary than watching a horde of computer generated infected people amass in an unnatural manner, like ants, to get over a giant wall to attack the other side, even if the idea itself is kinda unnerving. And as much as I want to complain about the lack of flesh being torn by hideously rotting corpses, I have to remember this isn't Zombie Flesh Eaters, this is big budget summer blockbuster territory and we're lucky it's a 15 certificate in the UK and not a sanitised 12A.

What actually works is the story. Brad Pitt's Gerry essentially travels the world to find a cure and try his best not to get bit. The opening sequence when it all kicks off in New York city is a pretty terrifying recreation of what happens when a city combusts due to an event like this, but by not focusing on this one location and giving the film constant momentum it's a far more engaging affair. Pitt is believable in the role as someone who can think on his feet and survive in situations like this. The book was evidently a difficult one to adapt due to it's constant shifts in perspective (I've not read it), but a decent job has been done at creating a through story that works, whilst touching on certain key aspects and leaving room for more to be covered in already announced sequels. And the aforementioned climactic sequence is a suitable pay off in terms of quiet, clinical tension.

It seems that going into World War Z with low expectations helped. As a zombie film it's poor and thoroughly makes the case for both slow zombies and practical effects, but as a disaster movie of sorts it's far more interesting and with a lead actor whom always engages. It reminds me of why The Walking Dead works so well (first season aside) - the focus is primarily on characters and story, with gore splattered violence a secondary factor that regularly rears its putrid head. If World War Z had more of the latter it would work on another more interesting level, but that was never going to happen and so we're left with a film that's still better than we could've actually hoped for.

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