“World War Z,” a horror-action picture about a worldwide zombie epidemic, contains a number of stupendous sequences. In one, a traffic jam in Philadelphia has turned roads into parking lots, and people suddenly start emerging from their cars, snarling and looking dead and hungry and maniacal. In another scene, hordes of the undead swarm a gigantic wall built to protect Israel, climbing over each other like ants until they reach the top and start jumping on the unsuspecting civilians below.
And in perhaps the best set piece of the film, a man aboard an airliner in midflight emerges from the plane’s rear bathroom and starts chomping on people, the zombie disease spreading through coach and making its way toward first-class in a matter of seconds, like a runaway fire. Such scenes make director Marc Forster’s attempt to adapt Max Brooks’ unfilmable novel — an oral history of mankind’s war against the undead — a fun and scary blast.
But then there’s the rest of the movie. Instead of cramming the book’s multitude of characters into a two-hour film, “World War Z” focuses on Gerry (Brad Pitt), a retired United Nations official who must leave his wife and two daughters to help the government figure out where this rapidly spreading virus came from (and, more importantly, how to stop it). Instead of a giant-sized episode of “The Walking Dead,” though, “World War Z” plays a lot more like Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” which contains no zombies but features the sight of Gwyneth Paltrow’s face being peeled back from her skull, an image far more disturbing than anything you’ll see in this well-made but timid picture.
A lot of gore in horror movies today is purely gratuitous. But things are different when the subject turns to flesh-eating zombies. The threat of unspeakable mutilation and violence — the idea of being eaten alive — is what makes them terrifying (the fact they’re so hard to kill is just a bonus). And “World War Z,” because it cost a reported $200 million, plays things extra-safe to make sure 12-year-olds can see it along with the grown-ups. For a story with so much death and mayhem, the film is practically bloodless.
The concept of a single man being able to criss-cross the globe in time to stop such a rapidly spreading virus is hokey enough, but you buy it because he’s Pitt, who is just as good in the tender scenes with his family as he is exploring the spooky corridors of an abandoned medical facility. But “World War Z” repeatedly chickens out, more afraid of offending viewers with delicate sensibilities than earning its budget back. There are some tremendous images in the movie, but there isn’t a single good fright.
“World War Z” opens with an undeniable bang. But if this is the way the world ends, we’re going out with a whimper.