The PG-13 rating making horror buffs complain about World War Z before seeing it actually turns out to be its finest trait.
There's no rule that zombie movies must be explicitly violent, although most are. Director Marc Forster knows when to turn away from flesh ripping and kill shots, and what to put in their places.
Chiefly speed, and not only the way World War Z's zombies chase down victims like linebackers or scuttle into stepladder formation like fire ants. It's the movie's constant pacing, relentless and straight-lined because that's the shortest distance to fear. World War Z goes around the world and barely doubles back, tracking swarms of undead calamitous panic. That twinge in your gut isn't nausea as usual but tension, which is rare.
This more than $200 million movie — the most expensive zombie flick ever — is inspired by Max Brooks' novel that described the worldwide Zombie War after the fact, painting a lock-piece oral history that would resemble Contagion if filmed as written. Forster and (at least) three screenwriters pare down the pandemic testimonies to one globe-trotting detective, Gerry Lane, played with intense resolve by Brad Pitt.
Gerry is a retired United Nations troubleshooter, called back to hitch rides to North Korea, Israel, Newark, anywhere this mysterious outbreak of carnage flares up. Gerry knows the terror firsthand, as he was caught in a Philadelphia traffic jam with his wife, Karin (Mireille Enos), and two daughters when the virus strikes. Victims twitch their way into undeadness, a condition marked by milky rolling eyeballs, dental mutation and a sudden urge for "bitin' everything like fat kids love Twix," as someone says.
That sequence offers the movie's most vivid images of what these monsters are about and what they're capable of doing. Forster front-loads the worst so he can artistically toy with that impression later, showing the worst mayhem from helicopter distance or a security camera's perspective. It's a calculated restraint emphasizing the horror's sprawl and preserving the PG-13. We get the point without all the gory details, making the chase, not the chomping, the main source of thrills.
The chase takes Gerry into zombie hotspots, becoming overextended yet exhilarating set pieces, and control rooms filled with experts sharing pensive looks. It's like Zombie Dark Thirty. Nothing beyond Gerry's concern for his family is attempted to make anyone interesting except for what they're doing to survive. Pitt is solid, but at times you wish this role were played by someone unknown, as most others are. His celebrity guarantees Gerry's survival, but anyone else is fair zombie game.
World War Z presents an abundance of relatively plausible action, smart solutions and one useful piece of information: When the zombiepocalypse comes, the undead are flying coach.
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Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or 727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.