Zombie stuff but not as you know it

Anti-virus mission: Brad Pitt plays a former UN investigator.WORLD WAR ZDirected by Marc ForsterScreenplay by Matthew Michael Carahan, J. Michael Straczynski,Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof and Max Brooks from the novel by Max Brooks.Rated M. 116 minutesCinemas everywhereReviewer’s rating: 3 and a half out of 5 stars

Zombies may be mindless but they make great metaphors. In 1968, when George Romero came up with Night of the Living Dead, the first in his cycle of zombie classics, he drew on Vietnam and the racism in America’s south to create a zombie menace that sprang from the evils within American society. His zombies were not The Other. They were Us.

And to ram the message right home, he made the mob hysteria, whipped up by some of the films’ more zealous zombie hunters, look just as ugly as the zombies themselves.

Romero’s were low-budget efforts but their special effects men delighted the fans by splashing on the blood and gore with a sure hand and an unflinching eye for detail. There were good reasons for this.

Tom Savini, who did the make-up and special effects on Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), explained later that his own time in Vietnam had provided him with vivid first-hand observations of the real thing.

World War Z, produced by its star, Brad Pitt, and directed by Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace), is definitely not low-budget. Estimates of its costs have gone as high as $400 million amid rumours of reshoots and disagreements between star and director, plus copious rewrites.

This time round, the prevailing metaphor – predictably enough – stems from our fears of environmental catastrophe. These zombies are not risen from the dead. They have caught a virus that is likened to SARS and the influenza pandemic of the early 1900s.

And they are compelled to pass it on. One bite and you know in 12 seconds if you, too, are about to become ”zombified”. The less than subtle inference to be drawn from this is that we are polluting the planet by over-population and it is retaliating in kind.

Prospects are bleak but we do have Brad. Admittedly, he is wearing his least flattering hairstyle – the bob with centre parting – but he’s tough. As Gerry Lane, a former UN investigator, he has spent a lot of time taking care of trouble in an assortment of the world’s top hotspots. Now he’s retired.

But in the film’s opening scenes, the zombie hordes hit Philadelphia, where he has been living happily with his wife, Karin (Mireille Enos) and their young daughters. They escape only because his former boss has them whisked to safety by helicopter and set down on a US aircraft carrier in the Atlantic. Here, Karin and the girls can stay if Gerry will agree to head a mission aimed at tracking the virus to its cause. First stop is North Korea.

All the while, Forster wisely keeps the zombies in the middle distance, except for a climactic few moments with close-ups cut together so fast that you can’t see anything much. All up, it efficiently signals the fact that he’s after gravitas, which is understandable.

High camp is out of style these days. Like sci-fi and super-hero fanboys, horror movie buffs like to be taken seriously. Even so, zombies, with their deathly pallor, lurching gait and crazed stare, still bring echoes of their B-picture beginnings, and there’s not a lot you can do about that.

Other set-pieces are more successful. The North Korean scenes, which take place at night in a rainstorm, are appropriately depressing. Then it’s on to Jerusalem for something genuinely weird. With an efficiency born of long years of practice, the Israelis have kept themselves safe by walling themselves off. What’s more, they have done wonders for the Arab-Israeli peace process by taking their Palestinian neighbours in with them. All is going well until the zombies – filmed in dazzling long shot – arrange themselves in a pyramid and begin swarming up the stonework.

Next to this, the denouement seems strangely restrained. It is set in a World Health Organisation laboratory deep in the British countryside where the script abandons large-scale action for some small-scale detective work followed by a series of stealthy manoeuvring through the laboratory’s corridors. And I found it refreshing. In a blockbuster of such magnitude, it’s rare to go out with a sequence aimed at engaging you instead of blasting you out of your seat.

Twitter: @SandraHFilm

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.