Surprisingly entertaining, even fitfully exciting, “World War Z” is primarily an exercise in expectation management. Forget those trailers suggesting a rock ’em, sock ’em, blow-it-all-up extravaganza or a Grand Guignol of cannibalistic grotesquerie by way of those titular Zs; i.e., face-eating zombies.
Instead, be prepared for a relatively grown-up, modestly intelligent and refreshingly un-bombastic thriller that owes as much to medical tick-tocks such as “Outbreak” and “Contagion” as it does to “28 Days Later” and the seminal works of George Romero. Anchored by a solid lead performance by Brad Pitt, who plays a happy Philadelphia househusband pulled back into his old profession of U.N. investigator when a zombie apocalypse threatens to destroy the world, “World War Z” may not break any new ground in either of the genres it straddles. But it deserves a certain amount of credit for refusing to buy into the current cinematic arms race in Biggest, Loudest and Dumbest.
The most memorable sequence of “World War Z” occurs early in the film, when Gerry Lane (Pitt), his wife, Karin (Mireille Enos), and their two daughters are caught in a maelstrom in downtown Philadelphia, where a horde of blue-veined, palsied wraiths makes a gruesome hash of rush-hour traffic. Soon Gerry is enlisted by a former colleague to help stop the epidemic, and with a virologist and Navy SEAL team in tow, he lands in South Korea, where the first known zombie infestation occurred. With his dashing neck scarf and blond-highlighted hair worn just long enough to suggest rugged iconoclasm, Pitt portrays Gerry as the ideal reluctant hero, less a comic book-style vanquisher of flesh-eating specters than a thoughtful, proficient problem solver, even when those problems can be solved only by swiftly cutting someone's hand off.
But don't worry: Even in that wince-inducing scene, the blood is kept safely off the screen. “World War Z,” which was directed by Marc Forster from a much-worked-over script by a large team of writers, doesn't traffic in the kind of gratuitous gore for which zombie flicks are known and loved.
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Instead, the film follows the classic contours of a globe-trotting mystery, throwing in occasional set pieces of terror and mayhem. One of the most impressive, which projects the cheering image of Israeli Jews and Palestinians finding common cause against the teeming undead behind the separation wall in Jerusalem, results in Gerry's acquiring a sister-in-arms, a tough Israeli soldier named Segen, played by Daniella Kertesz. (Make what you will of her unsettling resemblance to a Holocaust survivor.) Later, after a sequence that might fairly be described as the Ultimate Revenge of Economy Class, “World War Z” indulges in a rare instance of graphic ickiness, albeit one from which its victim recovers in near-record time.
For all the carnage and horror that “World War Z” entails, its net effect is oddly soothing, perhaps because one of the conceits of the plot is that Gerry and his confederates must work quietly so as not to attract their enemies' attention. (When they fail, the zombies come at them with necks outstretched, clicking their teeth like menacing squirrels on the hunt for winter chestnuts.)
Pitt, who produced “World War Z” after optioning the book by Max Brooks, does his best to inject a note of serious global consciousness into what can be read as both an outlandish horror fantasy and a flattering portrait of brave and handsome self-sacrifice. The result is a movie that, while no classic, can be credited with giving the audience something a little bit more substantive than the usual disposable summer fare.