After countless re-writes (and even re-shoots), this lumbering, re-animated corpse of a film has finally shuffled onto our cinema screens. And what an odd beast it is. Ostensibly based on Max Brook’s acclaimed novel about a zombie apocalypse, it’s a sprawling mess.
As often happens in Hollywood, the film’s producers paid a fortune for the book rights then ripped the innards out of the story. In place of the novel’s interesting reportage approach, they put soupy tosh in which ‘ex UN worker’ Brad Pitt travels the world to find the source of a global zombie pandemic. Then cures it. Single-handedly.
The film kicks off with downtown Philadelphia being over-run by a rapid zombie onslaught. It’s all impressively hectic, and the zombies themselves are super-fast and scarcely seen as individuals. More often, there’s just a sudden blur across the screen as some punter is whacked to the ground.
The director’s signature shot, though, is of a swirling mass of zombies climbing over each other either to push over a bus or summit a giant wall. It’s a bold idea, but the obvious downside is that the zombies couldn’t look more CGI if they had ‘Industrial Light and Magic’ stamped on their foreheads.
Brad narrowly escapes with his straight-from-central-casting family – the weepy wife, older asthmatic kid who needs an inhaler and, yes, even ‘cute’ younger kid who refuses to leave a zombie-marauded flat without her soft toy. Unquestionably, the film would have been more bearable if they’d all been chewed up in the first scene. Useless as characters, they might have at least made a decent meal.
As it is, they stick around like mould for the first half of the film, eating up scenes and adding nothing. It’s just one of many mistakes.
And when our buff hero enters a locked glass room, there’s a special cut-shot showing him leave his weapon outside. Cripes, maybe now he’ll get trapped inside when the zombie shows up. Even the most knuckle-dragging viewer is beyond such flabby plot-manoeuvring these days, and even the zombies look embarrassed.
The boy Pitt also suffers rather too obviously from leading-man-jinx syndrome. He drives through Philly and it’s suddenly over-run by zombies. He jets off to South Korea and actually causes an attack. (That pesky mobile.) Then he arrives in Israel where, yippee, they’ve built a big wall and everyone’s safe. But no sooner has he done some leonine pouting than here come the zombies and virtually everyone else dies. It’s tempting to think that had they just locked him in a cupboard at the outset, none of this might have happened.
Just over eighty minutes in – and there’s no delicate way to put this – the movie pretty much drops off a cliff. Having hitherto spanned the globe with hugely expensive, thousand extras-featuring setpieces, the ‘action’ suddenly moves to a single, internal ‘medical laboratory’ set – and stays there.
The reason for this sudden stomping on the budget brakes has been exhaustively documented across the internet. In a nutshell, the film’s producers had to scrap the entire original third act (a zombie showdown in Moscow that cost £100 million) after disastrous preview screenings. The snag was, by that time they only had about 33 quid left. And thus the final act.
Here’s what happens. Brad escapes from Jerusalem in a passenger plane and gets a radio message ordering him to head for the one place on earth where mankind can still be saved: Wales. Yes, you did just read that. And don’t worry if you laughed, because so did most of the audience.
Inevitably, zombies have clambered aboard in club class so the plane crash lands in the middle of nowhere, in Wales. (Sorry, that’s a tautology.) Natch, everyone dies in the crash except Brad and a saucy Israeli soldier. Impressively, given that their brief – literally – is to locate ‘a medical facility outside Cardiff’, they find it in no time.
The ‘plot’ for this strand is that a potential cure lies in a cut-off wing of the lab populated by a dozen extras-I-mean-zombies. But guess what? These ones don’t move at the speed of sound. That would obviously mean more cameras, snappy editing – more cost, basically – so these ones just loll about in the traditional manner. ‘They’re dormant,’ explains one of the Brits, looking every bit as confused as the audience.
And so follows a Scooby Doo-style mission to reach the cure, with every cliché crammed in – squeaky doors, crawling under windows, ‘almost’ dropping things – all patently calculated to just while away the minutes. And when these zombies do finally start chasing our heroes, there’s no blur-across-the-screen swiftness, just the laboured jogging of forty-something extras trying to run with their arms stretched out without falling over.
The whole segment is a disaster and, in Exploding Helicopter’s experience, literally unprecedented. For context, imagine the final third of Man of Steel taking place in a library; or Lord of the Rings’ climactic battle based entirely in a hobbit hut. It’s all so giddily wrong that the cinema audience were howling with laughter.
Fortunately, the helicopter crash scene was filmed before the money ran out – otherwise, it may well have featured a Fisher Price toy on a string. What actually happens is this: as literally hundreds of CGI zombies scale a high wall, one military chopper decides that – rather than just shoot from a distance – it’d be better to swoop down really low so they can all hop aboard. The undead hordes obligingly clamber on, and the weighed-down machine first spins then drops to the ground, exploding.
Nil. What remains is only the memory of how chunkily yet another ‘calamity’ has been constructed from nothing.
Exploding helicopter innovation
The idea – having a chopper weighed down by marauding zombies – is pretty good, but this scene loses massive points for blatantly manufacturing unnecessary danger. Also, the whole episode comes across as a flash-edited barrage of soupy-looking CGI figures. It never remotely feels like you’re watching actual zombies on an actual helicopter.
Do passengers survive?
Given that all those hanging on to the outside are already dead, this is largely an academic point. Presumably the crew die in the explosion or face the horrifying alternative of being eaten alive by an unconvincing special effect. Oh, the shame.
The most terrifying moment of the entire movie occurs in the first few seconds, when – among the faux news footage clips – Piers Morgan makes a cameo as himself, The sight of his bloated, self-satisfied features in widescreen is truly horrible to behold.
This may well be the first bloodless zombie film. So desperate was the studio to secure a PG-13 rating that nothing remotely nasty is allowed to happen onscreen. Which is something of an achievement, when you consider it’s a film about almost the entire population of the Earth rending each other limb from limb with their teeth.
So when Brad brings down a wrench on a fallen zombie, you see nothing but Brad’s head and shoulders. And when he chops off a woman's hand to stop a bite infection spreading, all you see is her worried face. George Romero, this isn’t.
“We’ve lost the east coast. China is dark.”
No global disaster movie would be complete without a grizzled general gravely muttering this sort of cod-military nonsense.
The film – with its powerless director, unrealistic schedule and hacked-to-pieces script – has become a symbol of how Hollywood messes up movies. The huge volume of online journalism about the botched job of making the film is far more entertaining than the finished product.