Recently I was invited to the Paramount lot to see about 20 minutes of World War Z, the biggest and most expensive zombie film of all time. Starring Brad Pitt, World War Z is loosely based on the book by Max Brooks, and it tells the story of a worldwide zombie epidemic from the point of view of a guy sent by the UN to discover Patient Zero. Marc Forster, director of Quantum of Solace, helmed the movie, which went through well-publicized turmoil when a new ending was written and shot.
Brad Pitt showed up to intro the footage, his hair remarkably like his character’s in the movie (which isn’t surprising, since reports indicate World War Z was still shooting new footage last month). He said he wanted to make a movie his boys could see before they got old, and then slyly grinned and said “I think we went a little far.”
Did they? It’s hard to pass any judgment on a movie based on twenty minutes of footage (a big chunk of which I already saw at Butt-Numb-A-Thon in December. I won’t recap that here - read my original report), but there are some things I’m comfortable saying. For one thing, the scope of World War Z is impressive. We’ve never seen a zombie story told on this scale before, and that’s exciting in and of itself. The footage we watched went from the streets of Philadelphia to an aircraft carrier at sea (the stronghold of the US government as Washington DC falls and the president dies) to a walled-off Jerusalem. The feeling of a globe-trotting adventure is there, but so is the feeling that this might get quite repetitive.
See, Pitt’s character is an ex-UN man who has been plucked out of the apocalypse to figure out where it all started. He operates like a disease investigator, going back through outbreaks, searching for Patient Zero. The footage we saw, combined with stuff that’s in the trailers, makes me worried that the movie’s structure is this: Brad Pitt goes somewhere, talks to some officials who fill him in on the current situation, all hell breaks loose and he escapes and goes somewhere else. Repeat.
Again, I haven’t seen the movie. The final structure might be quite different. What likely won’t be different is the bloodlessness - the footage we saw was very, very PG-13. A major sequence in which an Israeli soldier is bitten and has her arm amputated above the wound is shot in such a way that there is not a single drop of blood shown. When the zombies get mowed down with automatic weapons fire, the squib hits all appear to have dust within them. Zombies attack humans, biting at them - without blood or flesh being torn. In an era when The Walking Dead is one of the most popular shows on television, World War Z might seem very, very tame.
Marc Forster did a Q&A after the footage presentation and said he wasn’t concerned about that at all. “We approach [the violence] in a different way,” he told me when I asked about the lack of gore. “We consciously designed the film in that way, so I think we will overcome it.”
Pitt travels to Jerusalem, which had built a wall before the big zombie outbreak. He wants to know why. He meets with Jurgen Warmbrunn (a character from Brooks’ book, by the way), who explains that early reports out of China had soldiers fighting ‘zombies.’ While others thought the ‘zombies’ were code words for some kind of rebels, Warmbrunn, a high up in the Mossad, decided to assume they were exactly what they sounded like, and so he began construction of the wall. This is an interesting way of folding in material from the book, and Forster said that there are many other nods to the original source material, but that Max Brooks had not been very involved in the film.
“I met Max a couple times when we just spoke about the book and his intentions and I think, ultimately, he just gave his blessings,” the director said. “He hasn’t seen the finished film yet, because I want to show it all finished. He has seen some of the material, but I am looking forward to showing it to him. I hope I get his blessings.”
That Jerusalem scene, by the way, ends with all hell breaking loose. While Warmbrunn is giving Pitt a tour of a refugee camp, the zombies begin swarming up the side of the wall, like a huge army of ants. There’s something intriguing about this concept, of using fast zombies in this way, but in the sequences that follow the zombie hordes are all-too digital. Hopefully work is still being done on the FX, because this scene reminded me of nothing so much as the ‘scrubbing bubbles’ bit when the ghosts clear out Minas Tirith in Return of the King, which was not a highlight of that film. Fellow critic Damon Houx has said the movie looks like it tells the story of humanity being attacked by MASSIVE, WETA’s crowd-generating software.
How about that ending? I asked Forster about the changes, and he didn’t divulge too much. He says he’s very happy with the reshoots.
“I must say it was really refreshing and actually a great thing that we redid the ending, because I never did that with any of my other movies so far,” he said. “I realized that a lot of the great directors that I admire from [Ingmar] Bergman to [Federico] Fellini were always shooting, then going into the editing room, and shooting again. This process, back and forth, I think that was a really great thing that we were able to do that, and that the studio allowed us to do that. I think it made the movie better, and I think that sort of gave us a different reflection of it, because when you’re really in it and sometimes doing it, sometimes it gets so overwhelming that you might, for a moment, have to take a step back and see… how it feels altogether.”
The new ending, Forster said, is bigger. “I prefer it. I think it’s more powerful and really works in the favor of the story.”
I remain hopeful for World War Z. The turmoil in production doesn’t bother me - sometimes that sort of push and pull can really make for a much better movie. Forster’s right - directors getting to go back and shoot more after the edit is a GOOD THING. We shouldn’t always automatically assume reshoots mean trouble; Woody Allen structures reshoots into every one of his movies. You don’t really know the film until you’ve seen the edit.
It’s the film’s scale that excites me. If the structure is more varied than it seems right now, this is the disease movie I’ve always wanted to see. It’s Contagion meets Night of the Living Dead (or 28 Days Later really, considering the incredible speed of these zombies), which is a cool pitch. I’m not fully sold - the lack of any real blood is disturbing - but I’m choosing to remain hopeful.