In the wake of World War Z, UN employee Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) travels the world in a race against time to put an end to the zombie outbreak that is toppling governments and threatening to destroy humanity itself.

Cult zombie book gets lively adaptation.

Whilst inevitable a film would be made from author Max Brooks’ wildly popular 2006 novel World War Z, a self-proclaimed mash-up of Studs Turkel’s oral history The Good War and George Romero’s early zombie films that charts the military conflict and geopolitical aftermath of a global outbreak of the undead, the odds seemed long such a film would capture the book’s sweeping ambition and genre smarts.

Pitt and Forster have drawn deep of their independent roots to deliver a genre entertainment at once thoughtful and fast-paced

There was no lead character, for one thing, with only the interviewer (Brooks himself) appearing in each chapter, a la the never-seen interlocutor in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. (Welles’ 1939 Halloween radio prank War of the Worlds was apparently another inspiration). And the book’s narrative, such as it is, leads to far-flung corners of the world and paints often unflattering portraits of entire societies as they overcome short-sighted initial strategies to stay one step ahead of the zombie hordes.

When Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment beat out Leonardo Di Caprio’s shingle for rights to adapt the book and Pitt hired Quantum of Solace director Marc Forster, it seemed as if the property would take a more commercial direction. (Plan B’s roster of films produced to date include The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Tree of Life.) A round-robin of screenwriters, numerous production problems, an eventual budget of US$175 million and even the scrapping and reshooting of the picture’s entire last third suggested it was a property in trouble.

It is therefore a happy surprise to report that Pitt and Forster have drawn deep of their independent roots and savvy instincts to decisively overcome these setbacks and deliver a genre entertainment at once thoughtful and fast-paced, cautionary and reckless, brimming with ideas not usually addressed by Hollywood blockbusters whilst simultaneously in tune to the elements necessary for such tentpoles to work. (To no one’s surprise, given the pregnant ending, at least one sequel is planned.)

Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a retired UN worker whose idyllic Philadelphia home life with his wife and two daughters is disrupted when the city is overrun with a fast-moving, hive mentality swarm of zombies. Called back in to service by a former colleague, Pitt deposits his family on an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic Ocean before heading off to South Korea, Jerusalem and Wales (the picture was shot in Malta, Budapest and Glasgow) to gauge the extent of the problem and glean ways in which to fight back.

Pitt and Forster seem to have pulled the best from each other’s work: criticised for his supposed lack of action smarts on Quantum of Solace, Forster redeems himself here with imaginative and well-blocked set pieces. (Flying coach has never been portrayed with such terror.) For his part, Pitt’s over-reliance on his family man persona is more than compensated for by the thoughtful, just-this-side-of-brooding gravitas his brings to Lane’s on-the-fly problem-solving. It’s as if each man was determined to camouflage the film’s messages of survival and pluck within cacophonous action and genre thrills.

Perhaps sensing a certain fatigue with the gross particulars of individual zombies, their decision to portray the undead here as largely faceless blurs of CGI motion is a smart one. In fact, the only zombie with any kind of a personality shows up in the completely reimagined last act, which plays as nothing so much as a tribute to Romero’s Day of the Dead and its domesticated zombie Bub.

Pitt’s commitment to the film, on both a dramatic and economic level, is evident in the barnstorming approach he’s taken to personally publicising the picture worldwide. In its embrace of indie ideals on the larger canvas of Hollywood excess, World War Z is as subversive as it is satisfying.

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1 hour 56 min
In Cinemas 20 June 2013,