"World War Z" promised to be some sort of ultimate zombie movie experience, and it's hard to call it that. But the first 25 minutes or so of this "Contagion"-meets-"28 Days Later" thriller will leave you breathless. And the rest of it serves up novel and often entertaining solutions to the various "zombie problems" that this overexposed genre presents.
Marc Forster ("Quantum of Solace") hurls us straight into the action. Barely five minutes into the film, Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), his wife (Mireille Enos) and two kids are trapped in Philadelphia traffic when all heck breaks loose. Whatever hints there have been about this "rabies" outbreak on the news cannot prepare them for the melee a tidal wave of the undead unleash.
They dash through an onslaught of zombies, streets of mayhem, stores filled with looters. Parents act like parents (To the kids: "Be NINJA quiet!") and Gerry lets on that he knows more than we realize as he armors himself against being bitten and takes suicidal precautions when he is exposed.
Gerry has special skills. He was a researcher and troubleshooter for the United Nations. His old U.N. boss (Fana Mokoena) says "I need you," and that's his family's source of rescue. As cities fall and governments collapse, the "useful" and the powerful find themselves ferried to an offshore flotilla of survivors where the military and the U.N. help them regroup and start looking for answers.
"The airlines were the perfect delivery system" for a virus, we're told. "Attention, D.C. has gone dark," a public address system aboard their safe-haven aircraft carrier announces.
And then begins Gerry's long, deadly search for clues, for "Patient Zero," the first place this epidemic broke out and the "crumbs" that will point to a solution.
An awful lot of the budget - that not reserved for special effects - must have gone to Pitt, as the supporting cast is seriously low-wattage, only a few name players in bit parts. David Morse has a chewy, toothless scene describing how North Korea may have saved itself. Matthew Fox and James Badge Dale are swaggering soldiers improvising their way through Armageddon, making sure they "get Zekes (zombies) on the ground."
Gerry Lane doesn't swagger. He doesn't panic, but Pitt never lets on that his character is sure of the outcome even if giving up is no option. "Gut up," he tells a soldier. Pitt lets us see Gerry take his own advice.
Forster keeps the gory stuff - bitings, bloodlettings, amputations - discreetly off camera. But he rarely lets the tension dissipate. Whatever message might be carried in the way fortress states, such as Israel and North Korea, resist the virus is undercut by the best-laid plans of the living dead. (Who are, by the way, fast-moving, twitchy and just scary enough. Their tooth-clicking glee at pursuing new victims is a sure laugh, but the movie rarely becomes a "Mow them down" video game.)
The "Contagion" vibe clings to it, with science straining to find an answer and the last vestiges of government grasping at a Hail Mary pass to save them all. So no, "World War Z" isn't the ultimate zombie movie. But it's reassuring to see the human race put aside its differences and share a little brain power to defeat those who - tradition and George A. Romero always told us - prefer their brains fresh and juicy.