Zombies have replaced vampires as the monster du jour, and I couldn’t be more appreciative. I’ve long been intrigued by the metaphorical resilience of the walking dead that leads them to be resurrected in force by filmmakers every 20-30 years, depending on what war, plague or political view is dominating at the time. However, zombies have tended to inhabit a low-budget, independent cinematic domain. Well, that’s not the case anymore thanks to the current success of World War Z, Brad Pitt’s $200 million apocalyptic saga very loosely based on the bestselling book by Max Brooks.
Pitt produced the movie and stars as Gerry Lane, a retired United Nations investigator living with his wife (Mireille Enos) and two young daughters in domestic bliss. The family’s happiness is all too quickly shattered approximately ten minutes in when a devastating, rabies-like virus begins ravaging not only their native Philadelphia but every other major city around the world. Transmitted within seconds from a bite from one of the infected, the virus quickly kills and then resurrects its victims. Already physically dead, the infected can’t be put down by conventional means and soon grow into an overwhelming, leaping, teeth-gnashing horde.
Lane and his family are spirited away from the carnage in the nick of time to a naval battleship, where his former boss at the UN assigns Lane to accompany the world’s leading virologist on a quest to find the zombie-making contagion’s origins. When the virologist is soon dispatched, Lane must single-handedly continue their task. He gains some help in Jerusalem from a young female soldier (memorably portrayed by Israeli actress Daniella Kertesz), who unfortunately finds herself single-handed in the wake of being bitten by one of the infected. The pair survives a harrowing, zombie-besieged flight on a commercial jet and makes their way to a supposedly shuttered World Health Organization lab in Wales, where a throng of undead researchers lay in wait.
Headlining a large-scale adventure movie for the first time since 2004’s Troy, Pitt is suitably world-weary yet heroic here if somewhat dull. His supporting cast is comprised of more serious, internationally-renown actors — including Ludi Boeken (Q), Fana Mokoena (Hotel Rwanda) and Peter Capaldi (so great in 2009’s In the Loop) — than are typically found in summer movie fare, especially in this genre. Director Marc Forster, pegged by many press early on as the likely fall guy should World War Z fail, proves himself more than efficient at orchestrating pulse-pounding zombie mayhem. Forster and Pitt also deserve kudos for eschewing the graphic violence found in most of their film’s predecessors, although gorehounds may disagree. Here, the suggested rather than literal gore actually makes the horrific dilemma seem less jokey and more believable. Even the otherwise serious tone of TV’s popular The Walking Dead can’t withstand viewers’ guffaws after the umpteenth zombie beheading or brain-bashing.
I didn’t find the fast-moving creatures’ speed in World War Z all that frightening in the wake of 28 Days Later and the 2004 version of Dawn of the Dead, but their insect-like ability to pile on top of one another in order to scale tall buildings and walls is truly innovative as well as unnerving. The film’s intense final half-hour, reportedly written by Damon Lindelof (Prometheus, Star Trek Into Darkness) and filmed at considerable additional cost after primary production had wrapped, is terrific and leaves the door open for at least one sequel. As both an epic of the undead and an escapist yet politically-relevant summer blockbuster, World War Z is a winner.
If you are gay and like your zombies to have more community-specific, satirical bite (ahem), you must check out 2009’s ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction. A horror-comedy for our terrorism-haunted times, it centers on a gay couple (played by the cute and funny Doug Fahl and Cooper Hopkins) who are forced to battle an undead uprising in addition to a psychotic, anti-gay pastor (is there any other kind?) during a weekend visit to one partner’s hometown.
If you are gay and just aren’t into zombies at all, there are several new home video releases that might prove more satisfying to you. The acclaimed In the Family, now available, was written by, directed by and starring Patrick Wang, the film details a man’s fight for custody of his late partner’s young son. It is a bit too long at nearly three hours but I appreciated Wang’s performance and mannered, Ingmar Bergman-esque approach. Meanwhile, outré gay filmmaker Todd Verow’s The Endless Possibility of Sky is a well-directed, sexually graphic but far from erotic glimpse into the lives of several self-proclaimed “sexual outlaws” that includes some arresting animated interludes by Katie Armstrong. Finally, the thoroughly enjoyable gay-French-Jewish-Finnish comedy Let My People Go! is now on DVD and VOD courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.
World War Z: B+
ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction: A-
In the Family: B
The Endless Possibility of Sky: C+
Let My People Go!: B
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.