If you assumed zombies have gone the way of Frankenstein — as once terrifying things now domesticated through repetition and familiarity — see what you think after the first 10 minutes of “World War Z.”
This is not a funny zombie movie, or a disgusting, existential or romantic zombie movie.
Rather it is something we haven’t seen in years, a scary zombie movie — and not just scary, but relentless.
Structured as a succession of disasters, “World War Z” is almost punishing to watch. It begins on just another busy morning in Philadelphia.
Family man Brad Pitt is in a car with his wife (Mireille Enos) and two daughters, and traffic is backed up. Police seem to be in a hurry, and there’s a nearby explosion, but everything still seems manageable until “they” arrive, a whole wave of them.
Remember how zombies are slow-moving and weak and stumble around with an air of distraction about them? Not anymore. These zombies run; they’re strong, and they’re so determined to bite people that they bash their heads through car windows. They leap and fly through the air. This time, they’re focused.
Clearly something bad has happened — we’re never quite sure what — but probably through a virus or an infection, zombies have entered the human population. Soon, it’s like some pyramid scheme from hell: Every person who is bitten becomes a zombie who, in turn, bites others who then bite others.
Considering that people, at first, don’t even know they need to protect themselves, it’s easy to see how something like this could rip through an entire city in hours.
Like the zombies, “World War Z” is nerve-racking and just keeps coming. Director Marc Forster (“Monster’s Ball”) takes a situation that is truly horrible, and by playing it straight, lands it in a zone of real disturbance and unease.
These things are everywhere, springing from every corner, breaking down doors, and — though the zombie range of expression is limited — enjoying themselves. They are, in the best way, loathsome.
The story follows Pitt as a former United Nations official who is enlisted to protect a scientist doing field research into the zombie menace. “World War Z” covers a lot of ground as Gerry (Pitt) improvises and goes from place to place.
This means that Gerry meets lots of different people, and a hallmark of the filmmaking here is that every human character is vivid.
Every actor is given something interesting to play and is showcased as someone to watch.
There are characters here with seven or eight lines who are delineated with more specificity than supporting roles in routine thrillers.
The action isn’t the perfunctory computer commotion you get in movies like “Iron Man 3” or even, to an extent, in “Man of Steel.” It’s full of unsettling images: Zombies climbing up and over each other to scale a massive wall, overhead views of cities in chaos, and a vision of St. Mark’s square in Venice after the zombie invasion.
The choreography is thought out, and the use of 3-D is at least good enough that I embarrassed myself, leaping in my seat to get out of the way of a zombie that was falling on me.
At the center of the movie, Brad Pitt is everything he needs to be — the face that catches your eye in a crowd, believable in action, human and thoughtful, and as pretty as the zombies are ugly.
He is an exalted, but casual, representative of the human race.
He also knows how to listen and let the featured players have their moment.
As for the meaning of it all, there may be none, though one has to wonder. Images of civic chaos have become a hallmark of our feature films since 9/11.
At the same time, zombies are more popular than ever, and this is the best zombie movie in years.
Does “World War Z” represent a collision of two modern fears — that it’s all falling apart, and that mass surveillance, a harsh economy, and social media are turning human beings into interchangeable cogs in a machine — i.e., zombies?
In 50 years, will cyborgs be watching this movie wondering, “What’s so bad about zombies, anyway?”
Apocalyptic zombie thriller. Starring Brad Pitt and Mireille Enos. Directed by Marc Forster. (PG-13. 116 minutes.) 3 STARS OUT OF 4 STARS