Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Up until age 13, right before I started high school, I slept with a rusty tire iron underneath my bed. Every night, while I visited dreamland, it waited in case, you know, there was a zombie apocalypse. I'd swiped it from my dad's toolbox one day, probably after watching George A. Romero's groundbreaking 1968 undead masterpiece Night of the Living Dead for the 25th time, give or take.
"When the zombies come," 10-year-old me once told my dad, after he questioned the weapon I kept beneath the mattress, "I'll be ready." Still, I knew I had to remove the tire iron once I became a teenager. Imagine if I would've brought a girl over for some closed-door studying, and, you know, she would've dropped something on the floor, and, say, she started reaching beneath my bed, and, well, found my ridiculous instrument of defense. Knowing my young, dumb ass back then, I would've said, something along the lines of, "Um, well, it's because of my favorite movie, Night of the Living Dead," and she would've bolted, leaving me sympathizing with a certain zombie in Romero's classic 1978 follow-up Dawn of the Dead.
Of course, if that scenario happened and the girl found my taste in horror cinema to be cool, she and I would most likely be married right now. And I would've had someone to watch all of my other beloved zombie films with, and, who knows, she might've even given birth to a little creature of our own.
As teens, she and I could've ventured together to the local mom-and-pop Easy Video store, where VHS rentals were dirt cheap and their horror section was no joke. That's where I discovered such under-appreciated gems like Italian director Bruno Mattei's grisly Hell of the Living Dead (1981), Italian genre icon Lucio Fulci's brilliant Zombie, and fellow Italian Andrea Bianchi's wild Burial Ground, which features reanimated ghouls that have more in common with The Toxic Avenger than anything from Romero's canon.
At the time, I felt like a complete weirdo for being so obsessed with zombie cinema. In the fourth grade, I brought my prized Night of the Living Dead behind-the-scenes book to class one day and retreated to the corner of the classroom to read it for the zillionth time during a lunch break; save for a few pleasantly intrigued kids, most of the others looked at me with ill screw-faces. If only I could see them now, though. If only I'd had the foresight to predict that my precious fictional zombies would dominate pop culture by 2011, thanks to, get this, a cable television show about them, titled The Walking Dead. And here's the one that would've really made me laugh with disbelief—that there would be a $200 million summer tentpole movie about zombies in 2013, one starring the biggest movie star on the planet, Brad Pitt, called World War Z. Had someone provided me with a crystal ball to see into the future and learn those facts, my mind would've been blown.
When the first trailer and subsequent commercials for World War Z surfaced, I, like pretty much every other self-respecting zombie movie fanatic, was skeptical. For one, the special effects looked I Am Legend-level suspect. Secondly, the zombies ran at ludicrous speeds, which isn't the case in author Max Brooks' 2006 novel of the same name, and it's certainly not how Romero and his Italian followers got down with their undead. The mounting terror in Night of the Living Dead is greatly benefited by the fact that its pulse-less antagonists slowly, menacingly walk toward their victims, and in such large quantities. That's what makes zombies so scary—there are so damn many of them. With Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Dracula, and Frankenstein, you're only dealing with one monster; in a zombie film, there are countless baddies trying to rip your skin apart, pull out the innards, and slobber down like a kid with a Sloppy Joe sandwich. And they won't stop coming no matter how many you shoot in the head.
Running zombies, however, are tough to accept for anyone who was raised on George Romero's filmography. Granted, the supercharged conceit worked in flicks like Return of the Living Dead (1985), 28 Days Later… (2002), and Zack Snyder's impressive 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, but the thing about those speedy flesh-eaters was that their quickness wasn't computer-generated—the zombies were actors covered in makeup and sprinting as fast as humanly possible.
World War Z's early footage made clear that the zombies chasing after Brad Pitt, having been infected by a mysterious disease, don't just run—they leap as if invisible trampolines are readily accessible at all times, converge into swarms and stampeding piles, and move so rapidly that's impossible to make out any of the decaying physical features.
The good news, however: Despite its atypical handling of the undead, World War Z is, if one is able to detach his or her brain and just enjoy the ride, a hell of a lot of fun. It's basically 80% action and 20% pseudo-intellectual exposition, and even those clunky moments lead to more lightning-fast zombies attacking scared humans with the ferocity of the creepers in 28 Days Later… after guzzling down steroid-and-Redbull smoothies. And with its emphasis on adrenaline-powered action, World War Z—directed by Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace)—is particularly geared toward z-movie fans like me.
Whenever I'd return home from school and pop my VHS copies of Romero's Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, or Day of the Dead into the VCR, I'd always fast-forward to the scenes where the zombies attack, before rewinding to watch them all again. In Romero's films, in particular, the stories always lead to third-act finales in which the people who've locked themselves in some building, away from the flesh-devourers, are suddenly and royally fucked thanks to all of the zombies breaking into their hideouts. Intestines exit chests, necks get chomped, torsos are fought over like they're the last chicken wings in a bucket.
Though it's PG-13, and, thus, gore-less World War Z is essentially a feature-length version of those Romero movie finales. The film's massive set-pieces—which take place in Philadelphia, South Korea, Jerusalem, and an airplane en route to Wales—are adrenaline-enhanced versions of the moment in the original Dawn of the Dead when a motorcycle gang breaks into the protagonists' fortified shopping mall, letting loose a shitload of zombies. The key difference in World War Z being that Brad Pitt, playing a former U.N. investigator who's called upon to desperately find a cure for the global pandemic, travels around the world in his efforts to avoid becoming zombie chow—in Night, Dawn, Day, and damn near every other previous zombie movie, the settings are intimate, restricted to one location (a farmhouse, a shopping mall, a military bunker, etc.) and allowing for easily discernible, good old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat. Even if it's with a shark and some dorsal fins.
In World War Z, the only times when viewers can get a decent look at the makeup team's handiwork are whenever the zombies are dormant; once the action begins, they might as well be video game characters spliced into the film. And for the most part, that's a good thing. Their Ritalin-ready energy keeps World War Z's intensity at a breathless pace, and the film's big-deal moments truly pop. Namely, a knockout sequence in which an infection spreads throughout an airplane, and Pitt's only choice is to toss a grenade into the middle of cabin, causing a whopper of an explosion and spitting dozens zombies and non-zombies alike into the sky. It's the craziest method of mass zombie execution since the badass helicopter showstopper in 28 Weeks Later (2007).
Yet, as much visceral enjoyment as there is to be had in World War Z, it's tough not to wish that Forster and screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, and Damon Lindelof would've stuck to author Max Brooks' source material and had the zombies be walkers, a la The Walking Dead. CGI creations that can be accurately described as Resident Evil Gone Wild aren't at all scary—patiently moving, decrepit cadavers with cannibalistic hunger that get all up close and personal while killing you are, if handled with sadistic glee a la Lucio Fulci, change-your-underwear startling.
That handsome bastard you see directly above, who's currently feasting on that poor woman's Playdough-looking neck? I'd stand a chance against him with a tire iron. But against the hordes of rapid-fire, viral killers found in World War Z? Not so much. Which is why it's best for zombie movie fans to separate themselves from universes of George Romero and Lucio Fulci when they decide to watch the male half of Brangelina try to do what actors like Duane Jones (Night), Ken Foree (Dawn), and Ian McCulloch (Zombie) did: eliminate as many of the living dead as possible before their respective movie's end credits. To his credit, Pitt rises to the occasion, just as World War Z does on the whole.
Bub would approve.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)