Here’s a PG-13 zombie movie at the tail end of the zombie craze that had a true fuckery of a production and has a hastily-rewritten ending meant to “liven up” the third act. And I kind of fucking enjoyed it! It’s basically a zombie spin on Contagion, with this pathogen that immediately kills and resuscitates people taking the place of an airborn disease. I don’t know if that has any resemblance to the Max Brooks book it claims to be based on, but as its own big-budget spectacle, it’s really not half-bad and actually sort of engaging in a superficial, “holy shit did that just happen” kinda way.
That shit in the trailers of Brad Pitt getting his family out of harms way is just the first act of the movie. Within 10 minutes of the opening titles, Pitt & Co. are running the fuck out of harms way with nothing except a crap bolt-action rifle to protect them. Luckily, he’s a U.N. crisis expert, as we are made privy to via one of those “He’s the best there is: he was on the ground floor in blah blah blah and survived through the battle of who-gives-a-fuck” speeches that Outlaw Vern (as well as myself) loves so much. The War of the Worlds “family in duress” vibe comes to a quick stop when his old U.N. buddy scoops him out of Newark via helicopter. The military shelters Pitt’s family on a boat in exchange for him going in and helping them find a cure, first in South Korea, then Jerusalem, then Wales, while cities keep tumbling to the ground and more and more unseen billions turn into raving zombies.
The ending, a hospital creepy-crawly sequence that replaced an epic zombie battle in Moscow, is actually pretty cool. It has moments of humor that I liked, as well as a couple of solid PG-13 zombie kills. But it sticks out; all of a sudden, over an hour into the narrative, you’re watching a movie written by Damon Lindelof and Drew Godard, and it shows. The tone is different, the stakes that are set are more immediate and less global, and, the most obvious sign of a reshoot, they reuse story elements that popped up earlier, in this cast, the wrapping of one’s body with magazines to keep the zombies’ teeth from protruding skin. I am not saying it’s not enjoyable, and it’s very possible that it only was an obvious late addition to me because of my awareness of the film’s production problems, but I felt that it feels more like a cool little short film of its own rather than the climax to a $200 million+ zombie movie tentpole.
The PG-13 rating is achieved in a rather ingenious way: instead of craving flesh, these zombies just want to infect as many people as possible, so there are no Day of the Dead ripped-open torsos here, and it makes sense. Heads are popped, but there is never the feeling that firing their way out of a given situation is the correct route for our characters. Even the fast zombies thing is given a clever spin with the horde-of-ants method of their brazen charging, and that over-publicized scene of them scaling a wall through sheer multitude of numbers is actually effective (a tip for cities sheltering refugees in the zompocalypse: make sure your new citizens know to be grateful and SHUT THE FUCK UP!!).
Pitt sort of defines the movie. He’s in nearly every scene, and his doe-eyed kindness towards man (and his obvious concern for his family) is the main thrust of the plot. One thing that distinguishes this film from the plethora of zombie films before it is it actually has a semblance of hope for humanity. While there is looting, mass hysteria, and military assholes who don’t give fuck-all about maintaining their sense of decency in time of crisis, there are a healthy amount of people (including soldiers) who are willing to put themselves in harms way to help Pitt out on his quest. It’s a very Pitt, hippied-out view of the end of the world, where people are actually decent and worthy of being saved, and help each other out when the end is nigh. I dug it: not everyone in the post-zombie world has to be Colonel Rhodes (that’s two Day of the Dead refs, for those keeping count).
I saw the shit in 3-D, and like always, I totally forgot about the format after the studio logo, except for when the fucking glasses would fall off my face mid-movie. Some of the action is dark and choppy, but it helps create the desperate mood that sustains the film. There are some near-comical moments involving the zombies themselves (how seriously can you take a lingering shot of a dude with rotting flesh chomping his teeth, after all), but I appreciated the humor after long sequences of intensity and mass death (the Philadelphia and Jerusalem scenes are epically destructive). There’s a bit on an airplane where Pitt makes an action-hero decision that put a huge wanking smile on my face, despite the implications it had for everyone else on board. There’s also a rare bone thrown to the geeks in the audience when Pitt must face some zombies head on and is presented with a baseball bat and a fire axe as potential weapons, and a soldier tells him “They both have their merits.” The zombies sometimes hurl themselves at their victims which manages to be jarring and freaky, even if their incredible aim is sometimes comical (especially after watching the midget-throwing in the preciding Wolf of Wall Street trailer).
There’s a surprise lack of supporting parts for a film of this scale. There’s Pitt’s wife and daughters, his buddy from his days in the U.N., an Israeli soldier who tags along with him, and that’s pretty much it. Everyone else is relegated to cameos. I liked a few of the characters he fleetingly meets in South Korea, including a muttering, ominous David Morse (my gut tells me that was the character that Ed Harris was originally lined up to play), and In The Loop’s Peter Capaldi shows up as a dead-serious World Health Organization doctor in the final act. Matthew Fox is credited as “and Matthew Fox” in the titles, but he’s in as much of the movie as “and Michael Shannon” was in Jonah Hex, as in, maybe a long shot or two. I hope he got paid well, ’cause this movie isn’t gonna do shit for his exposure.
The film is too hopeful and soft to make any satirical statements within the narrative, unlike the vast majority of zombie flicks, but as its own mass-marketed, multi-hundred-million-dollar budget beast, I enjoyed the ride. They somehow pulled this one out of the fire; now, I just really want to see that 72-minute original cut of the film that scared Paramount into publicly making the production a disaster, albeit a salvageable one.