Here's a news flash, and I hope it’s not a spoiler for those who haven’t seen it yet, but the violence in “World War Z” is not as graphically depicted on the screen as you might expect. In fact, much of it, and certainly the worst of it, is off-screen.
As a frequent moviegoer attuned to the way modern films are made, several times when something gruesome reared up in “World War Z,” when a zombie was eviscerated or his face smashed in or a human was bitten, I gritted my teeth in anticipation of the camera panning toward the act to revel in its explicitness, in close-up on a 40-foot screen, with bone-crunching stereo to punctuate the moment.
But that didn’t happen. Well, except for the bone-crunching stereo. And the fact that it didn’t happen was as startling as any other aspect of the film. My expectations were thrown for a loop.
A couple of years ago, I was unprepared going into the movie “Drive,” starring Ryan Gosling, a thriller with pretensions of art. Why does a movie like that display in close-up a face being smashed on a floor and a fork going into an eye? Things that were not just disgusting but depicted in a way that was so repulsively violent, it took me out of the movie.
Looking away, groaning, closing your eyes. That’s not part of the moviegoing experience, that’s being jarred out of it.
There’s nothing like being spirited away for two hours, whether it’s with laughter or drama or horror, whatever — something that allows us to forget we’re in a darkened theater with 300 strangers. But relentless unpleasantness, that’s something else.
Of course, “Drive “ was rated R; “World War Z” is rated PG-13. But given the level of violence allowed in PG-13 movies and on prime-time network and basic-cable television these days — to include the hit AMC show “The Walking Dead,” a zombie series that features excessively graphic violence in every episode and can easily be stumbled upon by children flipping channels — it was still a surprise to see a mega-budget zombie movie dial it down.
“World War Z” is a big-screen, big-star, major-studio release with a reported budget of more than $200 million, and the film was apparently a troubled production, with quite a few rewrites and reshoots before it finally came together.
Gorehounds — moviegoers who like their horror to be messy and gooey and altogether disgusting — will likely be disappointed in Brad Pitt’s monster movie (he stars and also co-produced). But me? I was pleased.
Now let’s clarify something before continuing. “World War Z” is rated PG-13, but it’s still a zombie movie. And like a lot of movies labeled with PG-13 ratings, it’s not for youngsters. Older teens perhaps, but before letting a 10- or 12- or 13- or 14-year-old see it, parents should seriously assess their kids’ ability to watch a very scary movie and not be freaked out by it.
And I found “World War Z” to be very scary. Mostly because much of it is quite subtle and atmospherically creepy. From the trailers, you might think it’s all about zombies racing around like jackrabbits, moving so fast that it’s impossible for victims to escape. And to some degree, it is.
This one takes its cues from the playbook established by “28 Days Later,” as opposed to the loping, lumbering, aimless zombies that date back to the 1932 Bela Lugosi film “White Zombie,” which was “rebooted,” if you will, by George A. Romero in 1968 with “Night of the Living Dead” (and its sequels and rip-offs).
The zombies here speedily go after their prey but auditory stimulation sets them off as much as what they see. They hear a noise and like a swarm of ants or bees (or, when they reach the roof of an apartment building, like lemmings), they race toward their victims in a pack mentality, each selfishly looking to gorge on living, healthy humans before another zombie beats him to it.
“World War Z” opens with a horrifying sequence in downtown, gridlocked Philadelphia, but it builds deliberately before going at the audience full throttle, and the sense of alarm ratchets up in a way that is every bit as frightening as the payoff. Then there is the scene where computer-animated zombies pile up on top of each other, haphazardly building a ladder of undead bodies desperate to get over the wall that protects Israel from this plague. Both are big moments and get a lot of play in the trailers.
But there are quite a few quieter moments that are equally terrifying, all of which gradually lead up to the film’s protracted climax as Pitt and friends attempt to quietly, stealthily navigate a maze of hallways in a research hospital without awakening or bumping into the zombies that have taken up residence there.
In many ways, this holding-back approach is rather old-fashioned, but whether mandated by a nervous studio that wanted that softer rating or simply the filmmakers’ choice, it should be encouraged. (The director is Marc Forster, whose uneven filmography includes “Finding Neverland" and “Stranger than Fiction,” but also “Quantum of Solace” and “Machine Gun Preacher.”)
And with the picture’s box-office success last weekend, let’s hope a few other filmmakers learn from his example.
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parents Guide to Movie Ratings." His website is www.hicksflicks.com