Who knows how long the current zombie renaissance will continue (though I can’t imagine it can sustain itself for too much longer), but if it starts petering out anytime soon, World War Z is a fine send-off.

Based (though only in the broadest terms) on the best-selling book by Max Brooks, it’s an insanely suspenseful (and only occasionally gimmicky) paean to zombie lore.

Brad Pitt stars as Gerry Lane, a former U.N. investigator who is call back to duty after zombies quickly (and let me stress quickly) overrun the planet. Seriously– breakfast in the Lane’s Philadelphia home is quiet and peaceful, and by lunchtime Broad Street is a mangled mass of explosions and sheer terror.

Gerry and his wife (Mireille Enos) and two daughters barely escape north to Newark, where they’re airlifted to a safe-zone armada in the middle of the Atlantic. There, Gerry gets his marching orders– find patient zero and create a vaccine.

His globe-trotting takes him from South Korea to Israel to Wales, each of which offers him a fresh version of hell. Most of the world’s big cities have been destroyed, much of the population is now undead, and no one knows how to stop it or what caused it.

Director Marc Forster (who has successfully redeemed himself after the hot mess that was Quantum of Solace) wisely plays down the gore and instead focuses on the sheer terror inherent in a zombie apocalypse. There’s actually very little blood (the worst comes when Gerry sustains a nasty, un-zombie-related puncture wound) and no gratuitous shots of viscera or carnage at all. Instead, World War Z follows the ol’ horror adage that the scariest thing isn’t the monster jumping out of the closet, it’s watching someone slowly walk toward that closet.

The suspense is ratcheted up to 11 right from the start and is capped by a particularly terrifying sequence set in the abandoned hallways of a WHO laboratory. But even that’s after a whiz-bang bit that may make you think twice about ever stepping foot on an airplane again.

World War Z‘s shortcomings are few, but they are there– not the least of which is a symptom of its having no less than four different screenwriters (and at least one round of re-shoots). Overall the finished film seems like a handful of shorter films cobbled together, and it starts losing its continuity and “feel” about half-way through.

The other comes with the decision to make Gerry even more of a superman than the red-caped fella who landed in theaters just last weekend. Over the course of two days he’s a trauma surgeon, bomber pilot, world-class sprinter, and helluva dad and husband who literally saves the world, all while holding the record for speediest recovery after a particularly gnarly through-and-through injury. No character flaws here! Move along!

Through it all, though, World War Z in nothing if not entertaining (white knuckles, edge-of-your-seat, etc.) and is anchored by one of Pitt’s finer performances to date. It’s a genuinely smart and smartly genuine zombie flick that works.

4/5 stars