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Dialing down the gore gives 'World War Z' an edge

Published: Thursday, June 27 2013 6:15 p.m. MDT

Left to right, Brad Pitt is Gerry Lane, Abigail Hargrove is Rachel Lane and Mireille Enos is Karin Lane in "World War Z."

Paramount Pictures

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Here's a news flash, and I hope it’s not a spoiler for those who haven’t seen it yet, but the violence in “World War Z” is not as graphically depicted on the screen as you might expect. In fact, much of it, and certainly the worst of it, is off-screen.

As a frequent moviegoer attuned to the way modern films are made, several times when something gruesome reared up in “World War Z,” when a zombie was eviscerated or his face smashed in or a human was bitten, I gritted my teeth in anticipation of the camera panning toward the act to revel in its explicitness, in close-up on a 40-foot screen, with bone-crunching stereo to punctuate the moment.

But that didn’t happen. Well, except for the bone-crunching stereo. And the fact that it didn’t happen was as startling as any other aspect of the film. My expectations were thrown for a loop.

A couple of years ago, I was unprepared going into the movie “Drive,” starring Ryan Gosling, a thriller with pretensions of art. Why does a movie like that display in close-up a face being smashed on a floor and a fork going into an eye? Things that were not just disgusting but depicted in a way that was so repulsively violent, it took me out of the movie.

Looking away, groaning, closing your eyes. That’s not part of the moviegoing experience, that’s being jarred out of it.

There’s nothing like being spirited away for two hours, whether it’s with laughter or drama or horror, whatever — something that allows us to forget we’re in a darkened theater with 300 strangers. But relentless unpleasantness, that’s something else.

Of course, “Drive “ was rated R; “World War Z” is rated PG-13. But given the level of violence allowed in PG-13 movies and on prime-time network and basic-cable television these days — to include the hit AMC show “The Walking Dead,” a zombie series that features excessively graphic violence in every episode and can easily be stumbled upon by children flipping channels — it was still a surprise to see a mega-budget zombie movie dial it down.

“World War Z” is a big-screen, big-star, major-studio release with a reported budget of more than $200 million, and the film was apparently a troubled production, with quite a few rewrites and reshoots before it finally came together.

Gorehounds — moviegoers who like their horror to be messy and gooey and altogether disgusting — will likely be disappointed in Brad Pitt’s monster movie (he stars and also co-produced). But me? I was pleased.

Now let’s clarify something before continuing. “World War Z” is rated PG-13, but it’s still a zombie movie. And like a lot of movies labeled with PG-13 ratings, it’s not for youngsters. Older teens perhaps, but before letting a 10- or 12- or 13- or 14-year-old see it, parents should seriously assess their kids’ ability to watch a very scary movie and not be freaked out by it.

And I found “World War Z” to be very scary. Mostly because much of it is quite subtle and atmospherically creepy. From the trailers, you might think it’s all about zombies racing around like jackrabbits, moving so fast that it’s impossible for victims to escape. And to some degree, it is.

This one takes its cues from the playbook established by “28 Days Later,” as opposed to the loping, lumbering, aimless zombies that date back to the 1932 Bela Lugosi film “White Zombie,” which was “rebooted,” if you will, by George A. Romero in 1968 with “Night of the Living Dead” (and its sequels and rip-offs).

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