Last week, Brad Pitt and director Marc Forster screened 20 minutes of their new film, World War Z, on the Paramount lot in Hollywood. Pitt introduced the clips, which included an early look at the second trailer, saying he wanted to make a film his “boys could watch while they were still young.” Hopefully, his boys don't scare easily, because while the PG-13 World War Z is light on gore, it's swarming with zombies who crush barricades and flip cars with the mass hunger of ants at a human picnic.
The first clip shown was the extended car scene teased in World War Z's first trailer. Pitt is behind the wheel of the family car next to wife Mireille Enos (The Killing) with their two daughters in the back seat, when the radio reports of a rabies outbreak become violently real.
The scene escalates: first, there's a broken rearview mirror, then a distant explosion, then a fatal hit-and-run. Pitt is the first motorist to realize the need for escape, and he exploits the situation like a panicked action hero. The tone feels like Forster is trying to pay homage to Steven Spielberg's classic Tom-Cruise-in-traffic tracking shot from War of the Worlds, but without actually laboring to shoot the whole thing in a single take.
Near the end of the scene, we see our first zombie transformation. What's striking is the speed: almost immediate. According to Forster, it only takes “12 seconds" - though he also implied that the zombie virus may mutate as it evolves, reducing the change to as little as 8 seconds. The action-packed trailers have made the undead look like 28 Days Later-style zombies, but they don't appear to have super-speed. Rather, they run like a human in a full sprint: they're reckless and overwhelming, but not genetically superior to the living.
“No, no, they don’t have any superpowers,” insisted Marc Forster during the Q&A. “When the feeding frenzy starts, they just run, but not faster than any human being.”
There's a scene that sets up Pitt's role in the film as the government, who has shuttled him and his family to a quarantined military boat, tells him the scope of the crisis and insists that he leave his wife and kids to investigate the source of the outbreak. If he refuses the job, they'll all be shipped back to the mainland to survive on their own.
Then it's off to Israel, where Pitt tours Jerusalem with an local government agent, who explains how the country heard of the coming danger before everyone - and built a wall around the city to safeguard its inhabitants. Of course, if you've seen that shot of an epic thousand-zombie ladder in either of the two trailers, you know their Great Wall isn't as death-proof as Jerusalem hopes. During the resulting action scene, Pitt takes immediate severing action with a sword when he sees someone get bitten on the hand, but the footage cut off before both we can be sure that his quick-thinking worked.
What's interesting about the World War Z footage we saw is that it doesn't show much of the politics or science or global worldview of Max Brooks' original book — i.e., the stuff that defined the book as something smarter and more unique than just another bloody thriller.
“Yes, it does take a break and become more reflective,” said Forster when asked about the rapid, action-heavy tempo during the Q&A. “It’s not what you guys saw here.” Later, he elaborated by pointing to the need to satisfy genre fans, World War Z fans, and audiences who just want to see Brad Pitt's latest picture. “There are some more reflective moments from the film, but some zombie fans you will not be able to make happy, and some zombie fans will embrace it and will love the movie. I think there will always be discussion and a little bit of controversy on every zombie movie, because there are definitely different camps of what people prefer or not.”
It's tough to tell if Forster is accurate when he says the parts of World War Z we didn't see will hew closer to the book's intellectual tone. For now, what feels most unique about the film is its use of the zombies as a teeming horde. In everything we've seen, the zombies aren't individualized, although Forster says they will have some more-personal moments in the full film. Instead, their terror—and power—comes from the way they kill en mass, and with the ultra-short conversion time, the two major action scenes we saw makes it look like they function as a tsunami: the first wave bites the second wave who bites the third wave, and in less than 40 seconds, the pack has tripled.
Watching the footage of the zombies rampage through Philadelphia, it appears that Forster sees them as biological, virulent weapons, which he confirmed during the Q&A.
“For me, the metaphor was more about overpopulation today and less and less resources and this swarming of them is almost like them going after the last resources,” said Forster, “especially when the feeding frenzy starts.”
Check out the condensed transcript of Forster's Q&A on the next page: in which he discusses the much-publicized reshoots and changed ending, gets repeatedly hammered with the fast zombie question, says Max Brooks has yet to see the film, and describes how shooting World War Z was “very different” than filming Quantum of Solace.
World War Z opens in theaters on June 23, 2013.