“World War Z” opens Friday at Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema and Sundance. PG-13, 1:55, three stars out of four.
Having just seen the world get decimated last week by fire, brimstone and well-endowed demons in “This is the End,” I wasn’t sure if I was ready to reboot for yet another end-of-the-world tale (this one a lot more serious than “End.”) But Marc Forster’s “World War Z,” based on Max Brooks’ clever bestseller, delivers the doomsday goods, with a fresh take on the zombie thriller that’s just smart enough to stand apart from the blockbuster pack.
Zombies are so well-known to moviegoers that I should start by classifying this batch — they’re the fast-running kind, who tackle their prey like lions taking down a springbok on the savannah. They don’t eat their victims (lucky for a movie that wants a PG-13 rating), but bite quickly, deliver the zombie virus, and move on to the next target.
We see this process take place in a well-choreographed early scene in Philadelphia, where thousands run from the zombies through the city streets, thousands turning into hundreds as the fast-moving virus creates new hosts. Caught in the chaos in former United Nations investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family. They escape the carnage for Newark (not the first place I’d choose for a safe haven), and then are airlifted to an aircraft carrier, where a deal is struck. If Gerry travels the globe searching for a cure, his family can stay safe and sound on the ship.
Like the James Bond of undead pathology, Gerry hops from location to location, from South Korea to Jerusalem to Wales, stopping just long enough for a vital clue and an action scene before moving on. Fortunately, the action sequences are all inventive and well-executed, with the zombies not just attacking but swarming en masse.
In the film’s showpiece, thousands of zombies attempt to breach a wall surrounding Jerusalem by climbing up the side in a giant mound, like ants. But just as effective is a scene when a zombie gets on board a commercial airplane, creating an undead wave that starts in coach and scuttles forward. (Will they show that scene on the in-flight movie, or worry that nervous travelers have enough on their plate?)
Through it all, Pitt plays a low-key intensity, trying to piece together the clues to find a way to stop or at least delay the spread. The ending of “World War Z” feels a little muddled, as if it’s both trying to provide a satisfying conclusion and leave the door open for a sequel. But the ride along the way provides enough thrills without insulting your intelligence.