There are going to be a lot of superheroes on screen this summer, but none of them are as super as Gerry Lane a former investigator for the UN called back into action to fight the zombie apocalypse. No superhero outfit or origin story — he doesn’t need one. He’s just an ordinary good guy who happens to be super-smart, super-kind, super-honorable, and super-able to withstand all kinds of physical challenges, perform emergency surgery, and be an awwww-inspiring dad and husband. To put it another way, he’s played by Brad Pitt. Based on the book by Max Brooks (son of Oscar-winners Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks), the story takes Lane all over the world to find “patient zero,” the original source of the plague that has turned millions of people into zombies, so they can figure out how to fight them.
A brief opening scene shows us Lane interacting endearingly with his adorable family: wife Karin (Jessica Chastian-ish Mirielle Enos), and two daughters, one with a stuffed animal and one with asthma. We have just enough time to fall in love with them on what seems like an ordinary day, until all hell breaks loose while they are driving to work and school. At first, all is confusion and chaos, and then the zombies arrive. They are fast and aggressive and it takes just 12 seconds after a person is attacked for them to become fast and aggressive zombies themselves. Zombies are, as we have come to know from many other movies, extremely focused and therefore extremely effective. They have just one purpose: to create more zombies. They will do whatever it takes to whomever it takes. And the humans who must try to survive will be faced with terrible choices.
After a harrowing escape, the Lanes and a young boy who helped them are rescued by a helicopter and taken to Gerry’s former boss at the UN, working from an aircraft carrier. At first, Gerry refuses to leave his family to investigate the source of the zombies. But the Naval Commander (David Andrews) makes it clear that they only have room for “essential personel” on their ship — and that Gerry’s family will only be considered essential as long as Gerry takes on the mission of escorting a young professor and expert in virology to Korea to track down the first reported case. They set off with some Navy Seals for protection, but soon Gerry is on his own, globe-trotting from Korea to Israel to Wales in search of answers.
Director Marc Forster, not known for thrillers, keeps things taut and involving, holding back information to keep us just a little strung out and then allowing us some release at just the right moment. The zombies are fast and relentless. Even at a PG-13 level, with muted gore, they are very disturbing. One just clicks his teeth with what could hardly be described as a knowing look — maybe just focused — and it is really creepy. From the heartbeat sound behind the opening logo to the seemingly innocent moments that turn ominous, the pacing is tight and absorbing and the the characters and the puzzle weighty. But it is Pitt who makes it all work. He is so good at everything that we almost wonder why he needs a plane — surely he can just fly to the next city on his own — but his un-angsty goodness and sheer star power is itself the most powerful reminder of why it is that we want the humans to win.
Parents should know that this film has graphic and disturbing images, extended very intense sequences of peril with many characters injured and killed, scary and disgusting zombies, emergency amputation, guns, explosions, and chases.
Family discussion: Do you agree with the “tenth man” rule? How did Gerry use what he learned from the doctor? From his observations?
If you like this, try: “28 Days Later,” “I Am Legend,” and “The Andromeda Strain” and the book by Max Brooks