Amid all those reports of cost overruns, reshoots, a new ending, rescoring, and some character tweaks, the arrival of the zombie epic World War Z was a surprise of sorts, perhaps showing that if you get the right screenwriter for an overhaul – like Lost’s Damon Lindelof - the seams which every gleefully pessimistic critic expects to catch are almost invisible. Almost.
Sometimes a perfectly fine film emerges from a whirlwind of production woes – as happened with Casablanca [M] (1942) – and sometimes the overreaching hand of a producer mucks up an already flawed creation (neither of the dual Exorcist prequels are any good) and transforms it into a steaming mountain of elephant doo, but any flaws in WWZ reside in the main sequences already shot, edited and retained from the first cut and its significantly different final third.
The chief problem with any post-apocalyptic film is that last act - mostly because all the interesting parts tend to stem from the events leading up to the destruction of civilization, humanity’s efforts to cope with the few vestiges of once plentiful technology, and the small dramas and action sequences which reduce a group of irritable survivors to a select and more compelling few.
The finales also tend to be capped with a phony hope-for-humanity rallying cry (witness the feel-good hugging and 'Yeah!' moments of Damnation Alley) which is unfortunately what precedes WWZ's end credits roll.
However, because the film ends just as humanity has managed to reach a positive tipping point, that means 99% of WWZ's prior material follows special forces man Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt, who also co-produced the film) as he struggles to save his family from fast-moving, ravenous zombies, and then get back to the wife & girls after globe-trotting to hot zones in search of a solution to the viral contagion.
The film is apparently a whole bastardization of Max Brooks’ novel, but as a Hollywood production, is delivers all the epic battles and kinetic action expected in the first half as the world goes to Hell, and then switches to a more lean (and equally terrifying) set of sequences in an isolated laboratory.
However, two key flaws remain: the pre-end credit wrap-up features a terrible 'Fight... Fight!... FIGHT!' narration from Pitt; and after showing Israel’s resilience in staving off the zombies using a massive surrounding wall, the reason the state becomes immolated by the flesh-eaters is ridiculous (although once the ant-like creatures rampage through the city, the film gets back its mojo).
Fans may not like the CGI zombies, but unlike the video game creatures in I am Legend (2007), these are more filmed actor-CGI tweaked hybrids; their believability is really dependent on how much viewers will accept the virus as a fast-moving bug which immediately transforms a host into a rabid sprinter with super-strength (not unlike 28 Days Later).
The original final act involved Pitt’s Lane being drafted into the Russian Army where he languished for several years before embarking on a search for wife Karin (Mireille Enos), trapped in a Florida compound, and forced to prostitute herself just to survive! Matthew Fox reportedly had a different role which was significantly altered for the new material in South Korea.
According to various reports, the revised ending kicks in when Pitt and an Israeli soldier (Daniella Kertesz) take flight in a plane headed towards *Wales, where they initially find refuge in a lab housing a minefield of lethal viruses and bacteria.
Director Marc Forster wasn’t crazy about the reshoots, but the finale is really well done, extracting tension on material that’s smaller, simpler, and no less frenetic than prior scenes involving masses of humans running from zombies in a busy main street or a grungy apartment complex.
Forster’s manic editing style – at its worst in The Quantum of Solace (2008) - does turn that opening street rampage into a blithering mess of shakycam shots, reverse-swish-swoop pans and psycho-edits, but the film soon calms down, and there are several strong performances in the quiet scenes that buffer Lane’s ongoing question for answers.
Marco Beltrami’s music is a big and robust orchestral score, although it would’ve been interesting to see how the composer’s original vision – a more scaled down work with electronics – fitted the film. (Some of those stripped down ideas do survive in revised form on the soundtrack album.)
The Blu-ray’s extras focus on the standard production minutia and zombie lore as it applies to the finished film, and unlike the DVD and 3D Blu-ray (which reportedly lack any extras), it contains the unrated cut, since the theatrical versions on the former discs have been snipped to suit a theatrical PG-rating. More detailed gore and suffering were likely shorn to ensure an already budget-bloated production had the best possible chances of recouping its cost with the broadest possible audience, but a zombie film does need gore, and the restored material could've been a little bit nastier.
A podcast interview with composer Marco Beltrami is also available.
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan