Zombies Are Not Fast (But They Can Be Boring)

A review of World War Z, a movie about zombies that is not interested in zombies.

MPAA Rating, PG-13
Reel Rating,  (2 out of 5)


Zombies are among the greatest MacGuffins in contemporary literature and cinema. Any thoughtful examination of the subject of the living dead leads nowhere, but zombies can be a stand-in for any number of important social issues including immigration, natural disasters, and even romantic tension (see Warm Bodies).

Zombie movies generally fall into two categories: scary thrillers only interested in seeing screaming teenagers killed in horrific ways or thoughtful examinations about society and human nature. World War Z wants to be in the second category but tries to also placate those who like the first. As a result, neither is fully realized. Its attempt to say something productive about life and death is compromised by the repetitive need to show millions of CGI zombies attacking people. World War Z makes zombies boring.

Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is a modern day Cincinnatus who once fought third-world conflicts for the United Nations and now makes pancakes every day for his kids while his loving wife brings home the bacon. Then the zombie apocalypse breaks out in terrifying fashion. Gerry’s training comes in handy as his family fights its way through Philadelphia until they are rescued and brought to safety on aircraft carrier in the Atlantic (it is usually assumed that zombies cannot swim).

His family’s lodging comes at a price; Gerry must travel around the world looking for the origin of the outbreak in order to make a vaccine. As Gerry chases down answers from South Korea to Israel to Wales, he is continually pursued and attacked by zombies. The amount of actual time taken to move the plot forward is minuscule and many interesting facets of this story are overlooked in the service of pure, adrenaline-laced action. The film ends with a discovery that provides humanity with a sliver of hope but does not solve the seemingly endless problem.

For most of a person’s life, he assumes that tomorrow will come; safety is the rule, not the exception. Yet for those who have experienced a serious illness or been in a significant car accident, an understanding comes of the truth: death is a possibility at every moment and eternity is much longer than our lifespan. Jesus explained this by saying, “there will be two men in a field. One will be taken, the other left.” World War Z does a good job of demonstrating this sobering fact. The scientist Dr. Fassbach states that “mother nature is a serial killer” and explains that the Spanish flu killed nearly 3% of the world’s population in two years.

Yet all of these apocalyptic scenarios never ultimately come true. Any individual person may die, but God promised that after the Flood humanity would never be wiped out. Time and time again, the world seems to end—and then doesn’t. From natural attacks like the Black Death to the man-made atomic bomb, humanity has always managed to see daylight. World War Z sees human ingenuity as the cause of our survival, but man’s ingenuity comes from God. Our species has a divine protector who promised he “would be with us always.”

Yet apocalyptic scenarios and biological concerns are the about the only issues the film finds interesting. There are a whole host of other issues that could have been explored and are simply ignored. This is best shown by the most unconvincing characters in the film: the zombies. Considering that the original zombie concept itself is physiologically unrealistic, it’s almost an accomplishment to make them unbelievable. For example, zombies are not fast. Any previously dead organism that wanders around constantly without food for weeks cannot suddenly, in the presence of live prey, run faster than it did when it was alive. Yet the zombies here are really, really fast and can jump so far they almost fly. The viral conversion process from human to zombie also takes only 10 seconds; even a tuna sandwich sitting in the summer sun doesn’t go bad that fast.

Finally, important bioethical questions are completely ignored. Even simple but profound questions are pushed aside. Is a zombie of my Uncle Frank still my Uncle Frank? This is a movie about zombies that is not interested in zombies.

The world is a scary place, and World War Z succeeds in showing that. Yet just when it seems to open its mouth to speak some great truth, a zombie attacks and it forgets what it was about to say. Like its antagonists, this film is too fast for its own good. It has its moments but ultimately does not live up to the qualities of a good film. More importantly, it ignores the most basic zombie related dilemmas:

If you kill a zombie that is not attacking, is it a sin?

If zombies are technically dead, are their souls in purgatory?

Do their kills, though perhaps unintentional, add to their time there?

These are important theological zombie questions that Catholic geeks everywhere ponder, but World War Z will not provide many answers.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Nick Olszyk 201 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online and listen to his podcast at "Catholic Cinema Crusade".