“World War Z” is a real surprise. The movie’s release was preceded by tales of extensive script-whacking and panicky reshooting. But however desperate these measures may have been, they now seem justified; the picture flows smoothly from one sensational set-piece sequence to the next. It’s unremittingly tense and often very scary. It is a full-on zombie movie, but it’s one that relies less on the usual gut-slurping gore and more on the gathering dread of a plausible apocalypse for its horrifying effect. It rises above its genre.
There also have been early grumblings about the film’s lack of strict fidelity to its source, the 2006 novel by Max Brooks. But this was unavoidable. The book is constructed as a long series of interviews with survivors of a worldwide zombie plague, which nearly wiped out human life. There is no central protagonist to provide a narrative through-line, which is something a big, mainstream movie naturally requires. (The picture reportedly cost $200 million or more to make.) There was also no way to cram in all of the book’s themes of cultural and governmental insufficiency in a way that would cause a mass audience to be willing to sit through it. (“WWZ” runs just under two hours. Three cheers.)
So now we have a hero and a more concise story. The movie’s focus is on Gerry Lane (effortlessly charismatic Brad Pitt), a former United Nations human rights investigator who has thrown aside his career as a traveler through the world’s hellholes in favor of a more gratifying life in Philadelphia with his wife, Karin (Mireille Enos of the AMC series “The Killing”), and their two small daughters (Sterling Jerins and Abigail Hargrove). Director Marc Forster quickly sketches Gerry’s warm domestic contentment with an opening scene in the family kitchen. But then the movie gets right down to business. Gerry is driving Karin and the girls through town, when traffic suddenly comes to a halt. There’s an explosion down the street, and within moments, a stream of terrified people is coursing through the lanes of idling cars. We don’t see the cause of this chaos very clearly at first. Then Gerry observes a man being attacked by a rampaging figure; the man falls to the ground, twitches and twists, and then rises to his feet, dead but hideously alive. His transformation, Gerry coolly notes, took exactly 12 seconds.
This cleanly designed sequence effectively stokes our sense of foreboding. If human beings can be so quickly converted into flesh-rending monsters that are largely impervious to gunfire (unless the bullets are precisely aimed at their heads), then the customary tactic of deploying large groups of military defenders against them can serve only to increase their numbers exponentially. We immediately understand the awful implications and fear the very worst.
Fleeing Philadelphia, Gerry gets a call on his phone from his old U.N. boss, Thierry (Fana Mokoena), who’s in a helicopter over Manhattan, which also is being overrun. Thierry is on his way to an aircraft carrier 200 miles off the coast. He needs Gerry back in service to track down the source of this gruesome epidemic — to determine the identity of patient zero. He tells Gerry to make his way to a certain apartment building in Newark, N.J., where a helicopter will pick him up and ferry him and his family to safety aboard the ship, which is now a floating command center.
There follows a night of nail-chewing tension at the apartment building, where zombie invaders are making their way from door to door, and we, too, crouch in mounting terror. After a frantic escape, Gerry and his family arrive at the ship, where Gerry is informed that the zombie plague is worldwide, that the East Coast is completely infested and that “life as we know it will come to an end in 90 days.” Gerry’s family will be sheltered on board, but only if he departs immediately in search of information that could lead to the creation of a prophylactic vaccine. Gerry climbs into a plane and takes off.
From this point, Forster and his editors, Roger Barton and Matt Chesse, build a sense of growing unease into full-blown horror with unflagging skill. Gerry’s first stop is Korea, where the plague is thought to have originated. (In the book, it’s China; but China is a major movie market with a famously sensitive government, so ... Korea.) Gerry’s rainy-night arrival at a South Korean military outpost is filled with haunting imagery. The airfield is littered with dead bodies, and corpses hang from wire fences in failed midflight. A number of highly alarming events transpire (as well as an encounter with a possibly deranged CIA agent, memorably played by David Morse). Then it’s off to Jerusalem, where the Israeli government has enclosed the city behind a high wall, with uninfected Israelis and Palestinians packed inside.
This section of the film drives home the fearsomeness of the zombie plague in spectacular fashion. (One character tells Gerry, “I lost my son to something that had once been my wife.”) Outside the Jerusalem wall, a growing army of zombies clamors insatiably. Gerry’s local contact, a Mossad agent named Warmbrunn (played by Israeli filmmaker Ludi Boeken), only half-shares his sense of incomprehension. “People don’t believe something can happen,” he says, “until it already has.” Accompanied by a buzz cut Israeli Defense Forces officer named Segen (gritty Daniella Kertesz), Gerry barely escapes this chaos aboard the last plane out of the city — where a truly hair-raising sequence takes place. Heavily banged up, Gerry and Segen finally arrive at a beleaguered World Health Organization facility in Wales, where we get to see some of the zombie predators very close-up. They have a familiar implacability (and an equally familiar ability to move very fast, in the Danny Boyle manner), but some of the details of their conception — the way they bump idly against walls when unengaged in mayhem, the eerie way in which their teeth clack together when they sense the presence of prey — are supremely creepy.
In positioning its zombie plague as an international public health crisis, Brooks’ story stirs obvious real-world connections in our minds. (The picture also bears some resemblance to Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion.”) We’re appalled by the epidemic possibilities and excited by the picture’s unrelenting action, and by the end, we’re pretty thoroughly wrung-out. Early last year, before the difficulties of finishing this film had completely kicked in, it was suggested that “World War Z” would be the opening installment of a trilogy. (Paramount also has secured the rights to two of Brooks’ earlier zombie books.) This sort of grand announcement is rarely welcome. But the movie that Forster and Pitt (who’s also a producer) have delivered is such a well-crafted thrill machine that you may find yourself thinking: Bring it on.