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'World War Z' (PG-13)

World War Z, a horror-action picture about a worldwide zombie epidemic, contains a number of stupendous sequences. In one, a traffic jam in Philadelphia has turned roads into parking lots, and people suddenly start emerging from their cars, snarling and looking dead and hungry and maniacal. In another scene, hordes of the undead swarm a gigantic wall built to protect Israel, climbing over each other like ants until they reach the top and start jumping on the unsuspecting civilians below.

And in perhaps the best set piece of the film, a man aboard an airliner in mid-flight emerges from the plane’s rear bathroom and starts chomping on people, the zombie disease spreading through coach and making its way toward first-class in a matter of seconds, like a runaway fire. Such scenes make director Marc Forster’s attempt to adapt Max Brooks’ unfilmable novel — an oral history of mankind’s war against the undead — a fun and scary blast.

But then there’s the rest of the movie. Instead of cramming the book’s multitude of characters into a two-hour film, World War Z focuses on Gerry (Brad Pitt), a retired United Nations official who must leave his wife and two daughters to help the government figure out where this rapidly spreading virus came from (and, more importantly, how to stop it). Instead of a giant-sized episode of The Walking Dead, though, World War Z plays a lot more like Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, which contains no zombies but features the sight of Gwyneth Paltrow’s face being peeled back from her skull, an image far more disturbing than anything you’ll see in this well-made but timid picture.

A lot of gore in horror movies today is purely gratuitous: The recent Evil Dead remake used so much blood, for example, the overkill was almost comical. But things are different when the subject turns to flesh-eating zombies. The threat of unspeakable mutilation and violence — the idea of being eaten alive — is what makes them terrifying (the fact they’re so hard to kill is just a bonus). And World War Z, because it cost a reported $200 million, plays things extra-safe to make sure 12-year-olds can see it along with the grown-ups. For a story with so much death and mayhem, the film is practically bloodless. In one scene, a character’s hand gets chopped off, and the camera shies away so quickly you can’t even tell what’s happened until a few scenes later.

The concept of a single man being able to criss-cross the globe in time to stop such a rapidly spreading virus is hokey enough, but you buy it because he’s Pitt, who is just as good in the tender scenes with his family as he is exploring the spooky corridors of an abandoned medical facility. But World War Z repeatedly chickens out, more afraid of offending viewers with delicate sensibilities than earning its budget back. There are some tremendous images in the movie, but there isn’t a single good fright, and the last 20 minutes are so annoyingly predictable that unintentional laughs start to creep in.

The filmmakers go for suspense, but they condescend to the audience, as if we hadn’t seen all this before. And although there are some initial feints at using zombies as a metaphor for third-world issues and cultural differences, the picture forgets all that stuff by the final reel. World War Z opens with an undeniable bang. But if this is the way the world ends, we’re going out with a whimper.

Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Matthew Fox, Fana Mokoena, David Morse.

Director: Marc Forster.

Screenwriters: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof. Based on the novel by Max Brooks.

Producers: Ian Bryce, Jeremy Kleiner, Brad Pitt.

A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 116 minutes. Vulgar language, frightening imagery, violence. Playing at area theaters.