The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — a legitimate federal agency, remember — launched an educational blog called “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse” in May 2011. It aimed to teach readers how to behave in a disaster situation prior to the year’s hurricane season; according to CDC Director Ali Khan, “If you are generally well equipped to deal with a zombie apocalypse, you will be prepared for a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake or terrorist attack.”
Zombie apocalypse stories are inescapable; they’re contagious, spreading rapidly from their origins in early 20th-century literature and film to completely invade modern popular culture. Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead” comic books spawned AMC’s series of the same title and Telltale Games’ acclaimed episodic point-and-click game, while zombie flick “28 Days Later” resulted in a sequel, a graphic novel and a comic book series. 1978’s classic “Dawn of the Dead” — the second in George A. Romero’s “Dead” series, films that are often considered the origin of the modern zombie — inspired a hilarious parody, “Shaun of the Dead,” in 2004. This year’s “Warm Bodies” even turned a zombie apocalypse into a (surprisingly good) romantic comedy.
This Friday’s release of “World War Z” marks yet another entry into the over-saturated zombie apocalypse market. Although it fails to outshine fan favorites like “The Walking Dead” and 2009’s “Zombieland,” “World War Z” brings something fresh to the world of necrotic cannibalism: a resounding lack of gore. Sure, zombies are shot, and sure, people are bitten, but “World War Z” isn’t about survival or action — it’s about unraveling the zombie disease and averting total human extinction.
This is what “World War Z” does well. Gerry (Brad Pitt), a former UN investigator, is called upon to help research the disease, so he’s not exactly the “survivor” type that the apocalypse genre knows all too well. Rather, he’s one of the people with some answers — or the ability and mobility to find them — and his search for the origin of the epidemic is genuinely interesting. The film is hopeful, something often absent from apocalypse movies; there’s never really any doubt that Pitt will save the day.
While it’s a change of pace for apocalyptic themes, it’s also a detriment to “World War Z” as a zombie flick. Pitt launches into action almost too quickly; the zombies are threatening, but the viewer never feels as if total societal collapse is inevitable. The zombies themselves are slightly disappointing, their bestial and idiotic movements more laughable than frightening. There are plenty of scares to be had, but the viewer can’t shake the sense that help is always on the way. When it comes to zombies, that’s a bad thing.
Popular culture has become undeniably fixated upon the zombie apocalypse phenomenon for a reason: Zombies are the ultimate enemy. They’re frightening, but they all start out as normal humans, and the loss of their humanity renders them pitiable. Their blind lust for living flesh makes them a force to fight against, but their existence is lonely and somewhat sad. Best of all, zombies do far more damage psychologically than physically — even if we see characters devoured by a horde, the living always suffer more than the dead.
The problem with “World War Z” is that its zombie disease is incredibly fast-acting. In “The Walking Dead,” for example, infected humans only turn into “walkers” once the infection has killed them, and the transformation takes anywhere from a few minutes to hours. In “World War Z,” the infected turn almost immediately, minimizing the suffering of the living. The transformation itself is very violent, but once it’s over, it’s hard to feel bad for the former human as it pounces on its next victim. Although it tries, “World War Z” lacks a critical element of the zombie apocalypse genre: emotion.
Without an emotional component, a zombie film is nothing but action and gore, and that gets very boring very quickly. If you’ve seen one bloody zombie movie, you’ve seen them all, so plot is integral in differentiating each successive entry in the genre. “World War Z” falls just short of being compelling, because the film ends just as the plot becomes increasingly intellectual. It might have made a more interesting TV series than feature film, but its lack of character variety hinders it in that respect, too.
Considering the zombie takeover of popular culture, there are far better options in the genre than “World War Z.” If you’re a zombie fan, it’s a fine film, but it adds nothing to the moral and intellectual conundrums found in other zombified worlds. “World War Z” never gets past the apocalypse itself; it misses out on exploring the ramifications of society’s demise and the struggle to survive, elements that make a zombie apocalypse story enticing in the first place.