It’s panic in the street in this exclusive new photo from next summer’s World War Z, the most expensive zombie project in Hollywood history and the most focused effort to date by Brad Pitt (center) to add something new to his varied career: the first multi-film popcorn franchise that he can claim as his and his alone.
Pitt plays Gerald Lane, a United Nations researcher watching civilization teeter on collapse in the face of a rapacious army of rasping death. How can the relentless hordes be stopped? To answer that question, Lane accepts a mission that pulls him away from his family (Mireille Enos of AMC’s now-terminated series The Killing plays his wife) and sends him on a global search for the plague’s dark origins — and, yes, that fact-finding odyssey just might take three PG-13 films to complete, if World War Z gets a lively response at the box office.
First the $180 million project will have to overcome a bumpy production that already has vultures circling overhead. Filming began in summer of 2011 with an eye toward a release this holiday season, but as weeks became months the disagreements grew between director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland) and producer-star Pitt. Earlier this year, the December release date was tossed out the window, and in the summer, the third act of Matthew Carnahan’s script got the same sort of farewell fling. Despite the third act footage that was already in the can, Prometheus writer Damon Lindelof was brought in to write a new ending — both literally and figuratively — for the venture. Of course, the new scenes and re-shoots pushed the film costs up as well, putting more pressure on all involved…
Insiders promise the new ending was worth the cost and they say the film still has plenty of the inventive spirit of the source material, the 2006 bestseller World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (who, by the way, is the writing offspring of Mel Brooks). And there is a market for zombie sagas if you go by the millions of viewers who tune in to The Walking Dead on AMC and the fact that Resident Evil now has five installments. But World War Z will also feel the hot Internet wrath of purist fans who are offended that the film’s zombies might be better described as the running dead. That’s because World War Z follows in the fleet footsteps of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake in 2005 with its flouting of the shambling zombie tradition set down by George A. Romero’s genre-sparking films, beginning with Night of the Living Dead in 1968.
Visual effects supervisor John Nelson (Iron Man) said World War Z’s zombies lean more toward sci-fi transformation victims rather than supernatural resurrection subjects. That led to a lot of research into animal behavior, especially for creatures under the amok-time sway of predator appetite or spawning urge.
“They are like predatory animals that can’t control themselves,” Nelson said. “I worked with tigers [while shooting Gladiator], and if you watch them when a horse goes by they go batty, even if they know they can’t reach it. When Zs see humans they do same thing, they activate. They launch themselves.”
He went on to add: “There are a lot of things in nature we’re mining as references. They move like birds or school of fish, too, in reactive formations, and it’s not because they have a higher level of [shared] thinking or communication – it’s about their nature and the fact that their instinct to infect is so basic, efficient, and overpowering. They will go through anything. If they lose both legs, they will walk on their hands. They lock in and they’re like salmon going upstream or sperm swimming to be the first to egg.”
Unlike most fresh-water fish or spermatozoa, the zombies in the movie are resourceful when it comes to helicopter attacks. At one point in the film, a surging crowd of Zs climb up and over each other to create a writhing, wobbling column of infected flesh. “Everyone has seen everything in this genre,” Nelson said. “So of course we looked to try to find something new. And we have some.”
Time will tell if the slow-moving production with fast-moving zombies finds a foothold in a crowded summer, but maybe Pitt and Paramount should look the challenges dead in the eye and wink at them — and one place to start is by resurrecting an especially fitting movie-poster motto from old Hollywood: “Run — don’t walk — to theaters!”