“I originally got into this to make a movie for my kids. Somewhere along the line we all got a bit carried away.”
– Brad Pitt (smiling)
I was pretty damn exited to check out 25 minutes worth of World War Z footage this past week on the Paramount lot since I’m a nut for the genre and the book. With Brad Pitt and Mark Forster there to greet a handful of press with a short Q&A, it was obvious there was a clear effort to assure zombie and blockbuster fans alike that WWZ is still a major summer tent pole. Following a publicly hectic production that involved a third act re-write by Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard, a five-week reshoot as well as a flurry of rumors, it’s understandable why!
First let’s get right down to the footage. We were shown three set pieces in chronological order, given that all three were heavy on action and prominently hinted at in the two trailers, I’ll grade this coverage as containing only mild-spoilers. Skip below if you just want to read my general impressions.
The first set piece was the whole opening scene we’ve seen at the beginning of the first trailer. Brad (Gerry) and his family are passing time in Philadelphia traffic when an officer on a motorcycle breaks his rear view window, as Gerry gets out there is a huge explosion three or four blocks down the road and another officer instructs Gerry to get back inside. We all know it doesn’t end up well for that guy; a garbage truck driven by a fresh zombie crushes the officer and steamrolls through dozens of cars. Gerry takes the opportunity to drive full speed behind the garbage truck, which is still pounding through the congested traffic block by block. Off the bat I have to admit Gerry’s actions here seem a tad odd; there are hundreds of people running away from the direction they are heading in, and that directions is straight toward the block of the explosion moments earlier. Unless Gerry is 100% sure the chaos is zombie related (therefor being all around him), wouldn’t this response be a bit reckless? I’m willing to bet by this time he was already putting enough of the pieces together, as you’ll find out in just these scenes, there is a reason he’s being sought after for assistance (he’s wicked friggin smart!). Gerry and his family then speed off an avenue and get slammed by another vehicle [ha! but not that smart!].
And then… the chaos is turned up to 11 in the city. Now we see zombies coming out of from every angle. We’ve seen hints of it in the trailers but it’s not until you actually watch a scene fully play out that you realize just how different these zombies are. They literally don’t give a fuck. Remember the opening of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD? Remember how the first zombie uses a brick to break the window of Barbara’s car? Yeah, these zombies use their heads running at full speed. As Gerry and his family leave their torn vehicle, Gerry sees a British family get their car rammed by a couple of zombies that literally crush their own skulls trying to get in. It’s a chilling display of what makes these zombies unique, and by my money the most effective, as it was one of the few instances without excessive CGI (we’ll get into that). It’s actually in this chaos that Gerry is able to witness firsthand how long it takes before you turn (about 8 seconds). He and his family high tail it out of the city by stealing an abandoned RV. It’s in this sequence that the films PG-13 rating is effectively pushed to its limits in terms of carnage; the RV swerves left and right pounding zombies like ragdolls. One memorable image is a zombie bouncing back and forth between the RV and a parked bus. Ouch.
The second set piece was, in theory, a quitter moment on a giant Military ship that found solitude from the chaos at sea. I say in theory because once Forster turns the notch up from 1 to 11 in the Philadelphia escape, it really doesn’t ever let down. Gerry and his family have found their way on to the ship thanks to some high up U.N. friends, but they aren’t going to be friendly for long. A commander (David Andrews) informs Gerry that the President is dead, the Vice-President is missing and the only way to contain the situation is by “finding the source.” Marc explained to us that Gerry is an ex U.N. employee and a bit of a legend, who “worked in Bosnia and Africa during treacherous crisis’ and had a knack for identifying solutions.” Fine by me. Gerry tells his wife to stay on the ship with their girls, he has to take a navy seal team and find “patient zero”, wherever the evidence takes him. If he doesn’t comply… they’ll be forced to escort him and his family off the ship and back to the warzone of Philadelphia. While it seems harsh, the sea has become the only viable location for secure oppurating space and resources are scarce.
The final and most chaotic set piece involves that giant fuck-off wall of zombies made famous in both trailers. Gerry and his crew amount enough evidence pointing to Jerusalem, which may hold some answers to where they can find the “zero patient”. As they enter they see that the city has enormous fortified walls protecting a relatively small section where hundreds of survivors are being moved, but how the hell did they get a wall that large up so quickly after only one day of the virus spreading? Gerry meets a Mossad agent for answers.
Turns out, this Mossad agent intercepted a Chinese code months earlier that translated the word “zombie”, so he ordered a giant protective wall built…. “Seriously? You built the wall because you only heard one word? Zombie?” Gerry asks. The Agent elaborates by referencing the Holocaust and his people. “We made a mistake then and didn’t act when we should have. I told myself I would never make that mistake. There’s always one person who has to act, ten people knew about the code. Nine didn’t act. I did” (paraphrasing). Ok… to be honest the scene was moving so quickly that I couldn’t quite figure out in context if that explanation was incredibly goofy or somehow subtly profound.
At this point in their conversation the wall is being infiltrated by thousands of zombies climbing over each other to get to the other side. Military helicopters spill hundreds of rounds into the rising swarm of zombies. Not only are they climbing over each other as seen in the trailers, once they get to the other side they blindly fall one by one and SPLAT. The first wave is getting over, the second wave is the amount of dead zombie corpses it takes on the other side for the pile to cushion the fall of the rest. Jesus… Turns out it takes a lot, and it’s a really bizarre sight, unlike anything I’ve seen in a zombie movie. Eventually some get over and only their legs are crushed, so they crawl towards the survivors who believed they found solitary within the walls amidst the chaos.
Two Israeli soldiers try to escort Gerry into one of two helicopters leaving the overrun safe haven. When the first gets overrun with the undead and explodes (great shot of this in the second trailer) they ditch the air and make a run through a security zone that leads out to the open. They race down stairs that is covered with fencing above them, zombies are actually still falling from the top of the giant wall onto the overhead fencing, breaking their legs but not their determination to rip humans to shreds. They literally pull survivors up though the gates openings as they are running. It seems like a move more fitting for Xenomorphs in Aliens than a zombie movie. These guys are very, very strong.
They make their way into the city and are held up by small horde, the two soldiers start blasting away. It’s interesting to note how Gerry’s often seen ducking and avoiding offensive fire so far. A female Israeli soldier gets bit on the arm in the process and without a seconds hesitation Gerry gets offensive, he pulls out a machete and whacks off her arm. She’s howling in pain as he creates a tourniquet and begins counting up out loud. Once he hits eight, he exclaims, “You’re not going to turn!” It appears he has been keeping tabs just a day in as to how long someone has before they turn.
Lights up, mild-spoilers are done. So what are my impressions?
Well, to be honest, I’m as mixed as I have been since the first trailer. There is a lot going for World War Z, the hordes are really a unique take on the genre, at least cinematically. Forster brought up his affection for how Romero’s zombies were always a metaphor for society, whether it’s consumerism in DAWN OF THE DEAD or racism in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. “For me the metaphor here is overpopulation today. There are less and less resources. When the feeding frenzy starts it’s like they're going after the last of it.” I LOVE that.
I’m not completely sold on a number of things however; chief among them is the pacing. Like I mentioned in the description, it goes from 1 to 11 and doesn’t let go. That’s not exactly a compliment; Forster’s camera and sense of pace hasn’t changed much since QUANTUM OF SOLACE. Imaging the shaky camera and quick cutting found in anyone of those 007 set pieces and stretch it out with CGI zombies. If the entire film stays at the pace of the 25 minutes I saw not only will the experience be jarring but the tension will also be rung dry. In Marc’s defense however he did say that we were only shown “larger set pieces” and that there are “moments of reflection and uniquely individual zombies.”For the films sake I hope he is right, becuase unlike most zombie movies, a lot of these zombies don't come off as ever having been human in the first place. There is a uniqueness to the run or walk of extras in the genre that reflects the personality of not only that preformer but the person that zombie was before the infection. I wish I could get past seeing just the algorithm for the horde in general here but I can't. It comes off as many targets for practice that occasionally act as one unit.
Which brings me to the effect of the hordes... While some of it looks really great a lot doesn’t and I’m not convinced the CGI is entirely to blame. I think a substantial amount has to do with the PG-13 rating. There are shots of bodies on top of each other getting demolished by gunfire yet there is absolutely no blood. Shots of the zombies falling over the great wall and just bouncing when they hit the bottom, then bouncing on top of each other…. I’ve heard people compare the effects to the hordes in LEFT 4 DEAD. To be honest I think a more accurate comparison is a cross between the ants in KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL and the Australian edited version of LEFT 4 DEAD 2, where you shoot and shoot and the bodies are just ragdolls bouncing around.
At the end of the day, I am still looking forward to seeing the full picture in theaters, as I believe Marc Forster and Brad Pitt are genuinely aiming at something ambitious for the genre and whether it works for everyone or not they should be commended for that. Nearly every zombie film plays off the audience’s imagination of the “bigger picture”. Most are confined to a house, a mall or a group traveling back roads and avoiding big cities. That has always inherently been part of the genres charm. WOLRD WAR Z might not have the reflective narrative of the book, but it’s aiming for bringing down the curtains and showing you the LARGEST picture ever captured in a zombie apocalypse.
Here are some additional highlights from the Q&A:
- Classic zombie rule still applies: Headshots.
- "We all felt the ending could be better. We’re all happy with the result. It’s a different ending. It’s more powerful and in favor of the story." - Marc concerning the reshoots
- There are "a few" characters from the book.
- “They don’t have any superpowers. They just don't know the difference of height or boundaries. They’re not faster than any other human being.” - Marc on the zombies. - I have to say, even if they don't know boundaries there are demonstrations of strength that exceed far beyond anything a human is capable of in the footage.
- The entire film only takes place in a couple of days.
- They sometimes used up to 100 zombie extras. 50 with excellent make-up, 50 with ‘b’ make-up.
- “In Quantum you’re dealing with a specific genre that has been around many years. Here you have a genre where you want to do something fresh and different. You don’t want to repeat what other people have done. What’s great about this one is that it is a global epidemic. It’s a globe trotting movie.” - Marc
- “We approach our zombies in a different way. We avoid the blood on purpose. We consciously designed the film that way so we’ll overcome it.” - Marc on the PG-13 rating
- “In this world there were definitely zombie movies. They've seen NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. One character even references it.” - Marc
- They are two weeks from a lock on the picture. It'll run around 110-120 minutes
- Marc insists there are more stories to tell in sequels.