“Crisis in the Dead Zone”

“World War Z”
Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos
Directed by Marc Forster

Forget what you may have heard about the making of Brad Pitt’s zombie thriller “World War Z,” because this is one riveting, intense, visceral, smart and exciting summer movie that will rock your world.

That’s a relief, considering all the obstacles it had to overcome to get to the big screen: specifically, that its release date was bumped by six months to allow for costly reshoots of the third act; that its star and director clashed over creative differences; or that the author of the book on which it is based wasn’t happy with the final cut.

In the end, all that matters is the finished product, and on that level, “World War Z” is an awesome thrill ride with epic production values. And just when you think you’ve seen it all with regards to zombies over the last five decades – especially lately, thanks to the, dare I say it, runaway success of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” – along comes a plausible depiction of the zombie apocalypse that’s both exhilarating and unnerving.

Where the original book, written by Max Brooks (son of comic legend Mel), was told in the first person by those who witnessed the zombie pandemic, “World War Z” centers on Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a former United Nations investigator who is forced back into duty to find a cure. So unlike Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 viral thriller “Contagion,” which was structured like a procedural ensemble, “World War Z” is more of a hero’s journey with Lane out to save humanity for the sake of his wife (Mireille Enos) and kids.

That character-driven approach suits director Marc Forster, whose previous successes include dramas like 2001’s “Monster’s Ball” and 2004’s “Finding Neverland.” Though he stumbled with his first attempt at a big budget spectacle – 2008’s mediocre “Quantum of Solace” – he knocks the action set pieces out of the park in “World War Z.” Among the standouts: the initial outbreak in Philadelphia, which sends Lane scurrying to safety with his family, and a zombie attack on a commercial airliner, which forces a desperate Lane to detonate a grenade while his plane is in flight.

Normally, zombies walk – very, very slowly. That’s been one of their staples ever since George A. Romero redefined the genre with 1968’s landmark “Night of the Living Dead.” The prospect of running zombies really gained traction with 2002’s “28 Days Later” and 2004’s remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” but what really makes them stand out in “World War Z” is the way they swarm together en masse like locusts to become an unstoppable force. As brilliantly staged during a nail-biting scene in Jerusalem, it raises the stakes and makes Lane’s race against time all the more crucial.

While “World War Z” will have to do gangbuster business at the worldwide box office in order to justify a sequel, here’s hoping that it will do so. And as for those reports about its troubled shoot, the same thing happened with “The Bourne Identity” in 2002, and that turned out to be a critical and commercial hit that spawned superior sequels. So if it can happen to “Bourne,” it can (and should) happen to “Z” – and if it does, those sequels are bound to rock your world even more.

-Scott Mantz