With zombies by the millions, maybe even billions, on the rampage on a global scale, “World War Z” would seem to be the ultimate walking-dead movie. Adapting the sprawling Max Brooks novel for the screen would be challenge for the most accomplished of scriptwriters, and the fact that four people were credited with the story and screenplay is a testament to the scope of this project.
As it is, focusing on one central character, a United Nations investigator, would require action in numerous locations throughout the world, and the constant perils therein. That is a pretty full slate anyway, so this story structure eliminates the human conflict that has enhanced the episodes of “The Walking Dead” and added depth to the iconic “Night of the Living Dead.” Thus this streamlined approach, the work of the writing team of Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof and J. Michael Straczynski and directed by Marc Forster (“Quantum of Solace”), cuts short on drama and ratchets up the suspense and terror.
Having Brad Pitt starring as that main character, Gerry Lane, is a big advantage in “WWZ.” He is a commanding presence with an ability to keep a cool head in the most dire of times, attributes that come in handy for someone tasked with saving the world.
Pitt’s Gerry is a man who has earned a lengthy and early retirement, having risked his neck many times while dealing with various problems throughout the world. But his blissful life with his wife Karin (Mareille Enos) and daughters Constance (Sterling Jerins) and Rachel (Abigail Hargrove) comes to an explosive end on a street in his hometown of Philadelphia. Amid the death and panic, the Lanes manage to escape and make their way to Newark.
Meanwhile, Gerry is being summoned the U.N. Deputy Director Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena) to help track down whatever this plague is that is turning people into zombies. The Lanes are airlifted out of Newark to an aircraft carrier a few hundred miles off the coast of New York.
Gerry is presented with an offer he cannot refuse. If he accompanies a scientist and SEAL team on an investigative tour to find the source of the pandemic, his family will be given safe haven on the carrier.
From this point, “WWZ” becomes a travelogue in which Gerry spends most of his time fleeing from multitudes of zombies, these of the fast-running type rather the the lurching kind. Gerry and the team make a stop in South Korea, where in one of the few respites he chats with an ex-CIA agent (David Morse), who directs him to Jerusalem. It seems the Israelis in an act of incredible foresight have constructed a huge wall around the city, making it one of the few uninfected heavily populated areas on the globe.
Now, zombies do not engage in teamwork, driven only by their insatiable need to bite, eat and otherwise draft other humans into the Z world. But their growing numbers make them a formidable force, as unorganized as they are. Even Jerusalem is eventually vulnerable.
The scientist checks out early in one of those comically macabre ways, and soon Gerry’s best ally is a young Israeli soldier, Segen (Daniella Kertesz), whose bitten hand Gerry amputated, saving the young woman’s life.
There are harrowing scenes of zombie swarms and a horrifying airliner crash that Gerry and Segen experience, more than earning their combat pay. They eventually end up at a World Health Organization facility in Europe, where Gerry finally gets a chance to test his theory on getting an upper hand on the zombies. Problem is, a key section of the facility is occupied by very bored zombies hankering for some live bodies to pursue.
There are enough moments of tension and horror to keep the audience on edge, but the conclusion really flattens out, an abridged epilogue that seems like a segment of TV news teasers. It is a sublime winding down of the story, even though the Gerry voice-over insists the war is not over. But for Gerry, it looks like he’s earned some R&R with his family.