Zombie gentrification

New Brad Pitt vehicle is a competent thriller, but so self-consciously cool you may lament the loss of innocence in a genre that used to be schlocky and subversive

Like hungry ants or rabid piranhas, the hordes of zombies in World War Z swarm and sprint and leap at their targets with biological ferocity, defying the George A. Romero rule about the walking dead being essentially lethargic. The sight of these terrifying multitudes racing along streets or piling up like columns of wriggling maggots are some of the moneyed shots in a movie that views zombification as a health problem on a global scale. To fight the undead, syringes are more useful, apparently, than guns.

World War Z

Starring Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos and Daniella Kertesz. Directed by Marc Forster.

Despite the massive set pieces depicting various cities around the world, it seems appropriate, somehow, that the film's climactic solution to the zombie problem should be arrived at in the tranquil offices of the WHO.

There's the deadly virus of obscure origin, of course, and there's a hero who's not out to save the entire human race, but merely trying to save his own family _ which probably amounts to the same thing. There are military types and there are scientists, either doing their damnest to dispatch the diseased or attempting to figure out how to stop the contagion. In short, nothing exactly new here. And yet World War Z, directed by the competent Marc Forster, manages to package all the recognisable elements, give them a good shake and make the whole thing pop. Foster and his team of writers, adapting the novel by Max Brooks, combine the viral apocalypse and survival-tale threads with a sci-fi/suspense element to create a tense, clever thriller and prove that there's still some life left in the tired old tale of zombies _ plus a few new avenues to be explored.

Marc Forster on the set of World War Z .

Brad Pitt represents humanity in this battle. He plays Gerry Lane, an ex-investigator for the UN (just so we can feel reassured that he's not standing in for the US) who, along with his wife and two daughters, manages to escape zombie attacks in both Philadelphia and Newark. Rescued by his former employer, Gerry is coaxed into resuming his old job: tracing the source of a viral outbreak that's turning people into corpse-like creatures that croak and bite. He travels first to a military barracks in South Korea and then to Jerusalem, by that stage a walled-off settlement that's soon to becomes the site of the film's most hair-raising and spectacular zombie invasion. By setting its action centrepiece in that ancient and still disputed city, the film slips in wry commentaries on historical cruelty, the necessity and futility of paranoia, and how zombies are an evolutionary mishap and living proof that there's no such thing as an unnatural disaster. Like its zombies, World War Z moves fast; one of the film's merits is the fact that all of its characters behave like they've already seen a few zombie flicks before, so they know most of the basics (don't let those things bite you; shoot them in the head, etc) and don't come across as unnecessarily dumb. But still, most of what's satisfying in this film is also symptomatic of the genre's lost innocence. Zombie flicks, like vampire flicks, have evolved from the pleasurable cesspool of low-budget B-horror and bloodthirsty schlock to high-concept thrillers with A-list stars _ from Night Of The Living Dead and Let The Sleeping Corpses Lie to Resident Evil, 28 Days Later and TV series The Walking Dead. The genre's subversive instincts and allusions to social injustice and alienation have given way to gentrified sci-fi and choreographed razzle-dazzle.

Strangely, and sometimes frustratingly, World War Z displays hardly any blood at all (those few drops on Gerry's face just aren't enough!) and all the zombie killings are surprisingly gutless. It's an hygienic, almost cerebral, treatment and the primal screams of the half-dead we once cherished so much are replaced by lots of shots of cool-under-all-conditions Brad Pitt thinking about how to outwit the cavalcade of corpses.

The film is certainly competent in generating tension and nail-biting moments, and the final scene in the WHO lab testifies to its confidence in creating low-key horror. But sometimes it just made me long for the sight of a lunatic zombie gnawing on the leg of some virgin in a backwoods cabin, or the correspondence between spurting jets of blood and the release of pent-up anxiety in this underclass which perpetually hovers between life and death.

Zombies used to be hot! Now they're cool. Perhaps way too cool.

Mud

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland and Reese Witherspoon. At House RCA.

Coming-of-age charmer

A Huckleberry Finn-type tale with edges, Mud is an adolescent adventure that should charm adults. The two boys in their early teens who occupy the centre of this story, set in Arkansas, are played by Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland. They give the film a mixture of wide-eyed wonder (watching the dangerous games adults play) and an innocent tenacity as they confront emotions beyond their understanding. Most of us may focus our attention on Matthew McConaughey, who plays the fugitive of the title, but I would say that it's the two youths who make Mud such a pleasing ride into the sweaty, slumbering, eternally mysterious American South.

Ellis (Sheridan) and Neckbone (Lofland) are out playing on a small island in a river delta when they come across a boat entangled in the branches of a tall tree. In that vessel lives the sunburned-handsome Mud (McConaughey), a man who's hiding from the police and a pack of bounty hunters. Fired up by the promise of adventure and the runaway's tales of derring-do, the two young friends agree to help Mud by bringing him supplies and the latest news from town.

Mud's plan is to have a reunion with his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), though that will mean evading a number of gun-toting individuals currently scouring the land for him.

This isn't just the story of Mud _ and McConaughey, incidentally, is a lot more pleasant to watch when he's not playing romantic comedy roles; it's mostly a coming-of-age story about Ellis and Neckbone and their navigation of the unpredictable channels encountered while growing to maturity. They compensate for their inexperience with sheer grit, and they have their own adolescent worries to deal with, too: from Ellis' crush on an older schoolgirl to Neckbone's moody uncle (played by Michael Shannon, aka Superman's current nemesis).

Mud was directed by Jeff Nichols, who made his name in another drama set in the southern US called Take Shelter. Here, he takes his examination of the adult male psyche and applies it with a tender touch to teenage boys. The film, at times, feels longer than it needs to be _ running time is over two hours _ but, like most trips, it's the journey and not the destination that really counts.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist