“Mother Nature is a serial killer,” one character opines in the eagerly anticipated “World War Z” — and the old gal seems to have her cross hairs nestled squarely on that unstoppable global pandemic known as homo sapiens.
It’s a cautionary parable about humanity’s insatiable appetite for mindlessly destroying its own habitat, and how that habitat might retaliate: by turning all of humanity into a neutered undead horde, incapable of inflicting further planetary damage.
And not just your ordinary garden-variety undead; on the evolutionary ladder of zombie movies, this flick represents a whole new rung, with ghouls as aggressive as they are fast — like Olympic sprinter fast. Like, they could run rings around the “28 Days Later” zombies.
But wait a sec … this thing is rated PG-13, a crimson flag for the legions of zombie lovers who like their fare served raw and bloody. A zombie flick without gooey, dripping viscera is like a pizza without cheese — a sin against nature.
What’s more, “World War Z” is adapted from the phenomenal 2006 bestseller by Max Brooks (son of Mel) written in Studs Terkel documentary style, based on “interviews” with survivors of the worldwide cataclysm. It works great on the page, but would seem extremely tough to transform into a visual, plot-driven narrative.
Director Marc Forster and a gang of four writers don’t even try; they merely take the bare-bones premise of the book and use it as the foundation for a completely fresh story.
And despite the almost total absence of blood, it still manages to be a thrilling yarn, in no small measure because it plays out on such a vast stage.
It all starts in the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, home to Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt at his most coolly Brad Pittest), his wife Karin (Mireille Enos of AMC’s “The Killing”) and their two young daughters.
Lane is a former U.N. troubleshooter who torpedoed his career when he wrote a paper lambasting his employer for its general fecklessness.
He gets a call from his former boss (Fana Mokoena) who asks him to come back on board temporarily to help investigate sketchy reports of outbreaks of some new virus — possibly a virulent form of rabies. (Or not.)
Lane agrees to pitch in. In return, the U.N. agrees to fly his family to a safe haven on a seaborne flotilla in the Atlantic.
While trying to get out of Philly, Lane and his family are stuck in gridlock when weird things happen: A cop starts yelling, something explodes up ahead, and a swarm — no other way to describe it — of blank-eyed, lightning-fast, teeth-gnashing creatures barrels up the street, attacking every human in sight.
And the zompocalypse is on.
The scariest aspect of the film is how breathtakingly fast our thin veneer of civilization is torn to shreds. Within 24 hours, it’s anarchy (“What do you mean, we just lost Boston?” a panicked official shouts into a phone) — and you know in your heart it would go down just that way.
After securing his family at sea, Lane begins a globe-hopping sojourn to try to figure out what’s going on and thwart the epidemic, with each stop proving spookier than the last.
First up is a visit to a group of stranded U.S. soldiers holed up at Camp Humphreys, South Korea, where “Patient Zero” may have originated.
Then it’s on to Israel, where Lane acquires a sidekick in the form of a tough-as-nails female Israeli soldier named Segen (Daniella Kertesz).
This sequence provides the film’s most indelible image, a huge swarm of “Zekes” climbing up and over each other like fire ants to scale a 50-foot-high barrier wall around Jerusalem and get at the fresh human meat on the other side.
Lane and Segen barely make it out aboard a packed Belarusian airliner, headed to their next stop, a remote World Health Organization outpost in Europe. But even 30,000 feet up is no safe refuge; a zombie back in the coach-class lavatory soon turns the entire cabin into a swirling maelstrom of death, a situation Lane addresses in inventive, albeit slightly insane, fashion.
The final scene at the WHO facility turns into a taut, tense cat-and-mouse game between the humans in one wing and the zombies occupying another wing — where the solution to the infestation may well reside.
Forster keeps a firm hand on the controls, steadily building the tension throughout these scenes while serving up a satisfying number of the requisite shock moments when a zombie suddenly springs out of nowhere to attack.
“World War Z” expertly plays on our fears that a combination of rampant economic malaise, insidious terrorism and too-late-to-fix climate change has the world on a one-way trip to oblivion — all wrapped in a nearly bloodless zombie movie.
Now that is one neat trick.
Rated PG-13 for violence, intense action. Got a rant or rave about the movies? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.