Even if you allow for inflation, George Romero could have made his seminal 1968 zombie flick Night of the Living Dead around 270 times for the amount Paramount spent to produce World War Z. With Quantum of Solace and Monster’s Ball director Marc Forster at the helm and Brad Pitt serving as both star and producer, the famously troubled production reportedly ran up a $200 million price tag (some rumors put the total as high as $250 million).
Genre fans who were skeptical about a $200 million horror movie will have to keep wondering, because no one has made one yet. World War Z throws plenty of rotters at the screen—a chunk of that nine-figure budget went to feeding and costuming thousands of extras—but the film takes great pains to be as inoffensive as possible. It’s an action movie that just happens to have walking corpses instead of terrorists or aliens. The spectacle factor is high; there’s no shortage of explosions and images of large-scale destruction, and some of those scenes are skillfully staged. But I can’t imagine a safer, more bloodless zombie movie. You don’t need gore to frighten or disturb, of course, but Forster and company’s nun-like aversion to on-screen violence is a symptom of the movie’s larger problem: It’s a thriller that isn’t very thrilling.
That’s not to say it’s a bad film; it’s just not a very interesting one. Pitt carries the movie as Gerry Lane, a former U.N. investigator who is called back into action when a zombie plague decimates entire cities across the globe. Gerry would rather stay with his wife (Mireille Enos) and daughters, but former employers force him back into the field in exchange for offering his family a safe haven aboard an aircraft carrier. Gerry is charged with finding Patient Zero, the first human to be infected with a virus that immediately turns victims into utterly bonkers flesh-eaters. His search takes him to a military base in South Korea, a walled-in Jerusalem, and a medical laboratory in Wales, all of which are besieged by hordes of skinbags. He fares considerably better than the survivors of The Walking Dead or practically any other zombie tale ever told; every survivor he meets is very nice and wants to help him.
As a zombie movie, World War Z is remarkably limp and brings nothing new to the genre. Most of what made Max Brooks’ 2006 novel so interesting—its geopolitical take on the zombie plague—is gone here, another casualty of the movie’s bloated budget. (Paramount needs strong international returns, so elements that might have been offensive to, for instance, the Chinese government were removed.) Even material that was created specifically for the film was excised for fear that it might make moviegoers uncomfortable. If you’re put off by the idea that living, breathing people are the worst monsters of all, this is the zombie apocalypse for you.
As a business move, it paid off. World War Z enjoyed a terrific opening weekend both domestically and internationally, and once-shelved plans for a sequel are back on. It seems that Pitt and Paramount have the franchise they hoped for, which is an admirable accomplishment for a production so mired in rewrites, delays, and all-around turmoil.
Creatively, though, World War Z is something of a disappointment. It’s hard to hate it—thanks to Pitt’s presence as the sympathetic lead and a strong turn by Israeli actress Daniella Kertesz as a likable soldier he eventually teams up with, the film is fairly engaging as a big-budget, globe-trotting drama. It has a couple of stand-out sequences, even if most of the movie is forgettable. Especially after the numbing chaos of Man of Steel, audiences might appreciate Z’s low-key approach to the promised climactic battle (namely, there isn’t one). Given the amount of money on the line and the resources committed to the production, I guess you really can’t blame Paramount for playing it safe.
What I find most disappointing is that their timidity has paid off. Regardless of the degree to which zombies have infiltrated pop culture and the small-screen success of The Walking Dead, it seems that mainstream multiplex audiences still like their monsters as safe, non-threatening, and bland as possible. What World War Z offers is scope—a chance to imagine the zombie apocalypse on a scale we haven’t seen before. It’s too bad we had to sacrifice all of the visceral impact a zombie movie needs to get it.