This movie is inspired by the books of Max Brooks: The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z.
The movie opens with images that foreshadow the movie, as the “World War Z” title zooms in: Hot spots around the world (conflicts, protests, etc.), and insects and birds swarming.
In Philadelphia, a sleeping couple, Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his wife Karin (Mireille Enos), are awakened by their kids, Rachel and Constance, jumping onto their bed. The family retreats to the kitchen where Gerry makes pancake breakfast.
In the kitchen, Karin turns on the news and hears snippets of the coming events: Taiwan treating an outbreak of rabies and a Third-World nation under martial law. When a kid asks, what is marshal law, we learn that Gerry used to work for the United Nations as a troubleshooter who flies into conflicts. He quit so that he spends time with his family, but as the younger kid Constance mentions, his job now is mainly making pancakes. We also learn that the older daughter, Rachel, has asthma as Karin reminds her to pack an inhaler for school.
Gerry is driving Karin to work and the kids to school. They're stuck in downtown traffic. They see commotions ahead of them. Karin remarks three helicopters overhead in the last five minutes. They see an explosion in the distance ahead. A stream of police on motorcycle rides past them. One of them clips Gerry's car's side mirror off. As Gerry gets out of the car to pick up the mirror, a cop rides up and yells at him to stay in the car. Suddenly, a dump truck pancakes the cop from behind. Gerry and his family see a mass of people running on the sidewalk. Relying on his survival instincts, Gerry races behind the dump truck, which is clearing a path as it plows the traffic. The truck slams into a semi and a car t-bones Gerry's SUV.
As Gerry and the family get out, they see a panicked mass. Gerry sees the zombies chasing and lunging after people with frightening speed. The zombies hurl themselves onto cars and bang their heads against the car windows to get to the passengers inside. Some are successful. Gerry sees a person on the road bitten, and as the person writhes, the PA system for the trains counts the seconds it takes to board (“One second, two second,...”). Gerry sees that at twelve seconds, the bitten person stands up to become a zombie.
Gerry and his family run into an abandoned RV. While Karin treats Rachel's asthma, Gerry gets a call from his former boss, Thierry (Fana Mokoena), the undersecretary of the UN. Thierry tells Gerry that he can get a helicopter to them and that he's calling, not out of friendship but because he needs Gerry. Meanwhile, Karin realizes that she left the asthma inhalers in the car. They drive to get the medication. The younger daughter finds a hunting rifle in the RV.
Gerry and his family arrive at a convenience store in Newark, New Jersey at night. Looters are ransacking the store. Karin grabs Constance and a cart to load up food. Gerry takes Rachel to the pharmacy. He riffs through the cabinets but is stopped a gunpoint by the pharmacist, who gives him the right medications. Looking for Karin, they find Constance screaming in the cart. Gerry sees two men mugging Karin for her food. One of them fires at Gerry, but Gerry shoots the man with his rifle. A police officer runs toward Gerry, who raises his hands, but the officer runs past him to get to the food.
When the family runs out of the store, they find their RV missing. A mob of zombies is running toward the store. Gerry sees in a distance a lighted apartment building. As they run to the building, Gerry sees the zombies running past an alcoholic homeless person huddled in street. Gerry receives a call from Thierry and tells him to do a pick up at rooftop marked with flares. Thierry tells Gerry the morning is the earliest pickup.
Karin lights a flare as they venture into the dark apartment building. Suddenly zombies pop up and chase the family as they run up the staircase and onto a floor. They thought they lost the youngest daughter in the chase but, find her yelling at a door to let them in. The door opens, and Gerry and his family rush in.
The family in the apartment has a little boy, Tomas (Fabrizio Zacharee Guido). The parents speak only Spanish. They offer the family food. Gerry turns on a radio and hears the emergency broadcast system telling people to hunker down in their homes.
The next morning, Gerry convinces the apartment family to leave with them. "Movement is life," he tells the parents. The dad refuses but offers a knife that Gerry duct-tapes to the rifle to make a bayonet. He wraps his limbs with magazines. Gerry's family leaves and after a while, the Hispanic family hears heavy pounding at the door.
Gerry and his family fight their way to the rooftop. Gerry gets blood on his face as he bayonets the zombies. At the rooftop, he runs to the ledge, stands there, to count to twelve, intending to jump if he becomes infected. As Karin lights the flares, Tomas joins them on the rooftop. A group of zombies is trying to get to the rooftop but Gerry pushes the door to the roof close. The helicopter approaches to pick up Gerry's family and Tomas. After the helicopter loads, everyone, Gerry releases the door and runs toward the helicopter as a sniper picks off the zombies. Gerry gets in safely as the zombies jumps at the helicopter, throwing themselves off the rooftop on misses. One of the zombies is Tomas's dad. It hangs onto the helicopter's landing rail, but a soldier kicks the zombie off.
The helicopter lands at a U.S.S. aircraft carrier anchored two hundred miles off the Atlantic Coast. The carrier is an evacuation center as other rescue planes land with evacuees. Gerry settles his family into bunk beds and meets with Thierry. Thierry leads Gerry to a command post. Gerry sees the updates of lost cities and projected human lost on a big screen. Thierry gives the situation report: The President is dead, the V.P. missing. The U.S. government is lost, and that's why the U.N. is taking over. Major cities such as Rome, Moscow, are lost.
At the command center, a young Harvard virologist, Fassbach (Elyes Gabel), tells everyone that the Zombie virus is like the Spanish Flu, which appeared out of nowhere to kill three percent of the world's population. The best hope is to find Patient Zero the first infected and discover a cure for the virus. Thierry proposed that Gerry leads a team supported by Navy Seals because Gerry has the experience from being in war zones. Gerry says that he quit the UN, but Thierry tells him that only essential personnel are allowed on the ship. Gerry reluctantly agrees. Thierry gives Gerry and Karin a pair of satellite phones. He directs Gerry to go the South Korea as the UN first heard of “zombies” from a memo sent from there.
In the military cargo plane, Gerry's phone call to Karin is cut when the crew sees a nuclear mushroom cloud off in the distance. The virologist tells Gerry that Mother Nature is a serial killer, and like all serial killers, she will leave clues. The most innocuous clues lead to the big break.
The team touches down in the dark, in rain, in Camp Humphreys, an army base in South Korea. The team cautiously exits down the cargo bay ramp but is making noises. Gerry hands Fassbach a sidearm. They trail the team of Navy Seals, when out of nowhere, zombies run onto the airstrip to attack them. Panicking, Fassbach retreats up the ramp but slips and shoots himself dead.
A group of soldiers from Camp Humphreys appears and saves Gerry's team. Inside the camp, after learning why Gerry is there, the group's leader, Captain Speke (James Badge Dale), tells Gerry that he was the one who sent an email about the zombies. He recollects: in the camp, a South Korean doctor was treating a Korean soldier who somehow was stricken ill and nearly dead. As the doctor bends down to listen to the stethoscope, the soldier bites the doctor. The doctor and the patient infect everyone in the room. One soldier, whom everyone describes as lucky, escaped the room because the zombies ignored him. Gerry notices that the soldier has a gimpy leg. The soldiers escaped harm by locking everyone in the room and incinerating the room. Spekes says that the zombies are attracted to noise, are killed with incineration or headshots.
Speke takes Gerry to meet an incarcerated ex-CIA agent (David Morse) caught dealing arms to North Korea who may know more about the disease. The agent tells Gerry that only North Korea and Israel are surviving. North Korea, because of the social culture where the population follows the Dear Leader, who dictated that everyone pull out their teeth. Without teeth, there is no biting and no infections. (The ex-CIA agent was lacking teeth.) Israel survives because they somehow knew ahead of time and built a wall to keep people out. Gerry asks for a pilot to bring him to Israel.
First, they need to refuel the plane. A team of soldiers and Gerry ride out on a bicycle (because it's quiet) to the plane. Once there, the plan is to rush a tanker to the plane. While riding, Gerry's cell phone rings, which attracts a horde of zombies. Luckily, the sniper team backing the team killed zombies (with headshots) for the refueling to complete, although some soldiers had to fight the zombies with handguns up close. Speke got infected but was able to kill himself instead of relying on a sniper.
Gerry and the pilot lands in Jerusalem. Gerry meets Jurgen Warmbrunn, an intelligence officer. (The ex-CIA agent told Gerry to meet him.) Jerry asks how Israel knew ahead of time. Warmbrunn tells the story of the “10th man” as he shows Gerry around the wall. Israel developed healthy skepticism, he says, after ignoring stories of the concentration camps and clues leading up to the Arab-Israeli War. He is the 10th man, whose job is to investigate analysis dismissed by the other nine intelligence analysts. Initially, Israel intercepted a message from India containing the word “zombies,” but thought it was a code word. Warmbrunn started wondering what if it was real, which led to the development of the wall surrounding Israel. Israel has sealed itself off.
Gerry and Warmbrunn are escorted by Israeli soldiers, one of whom is a female soldier with a butch haircut named Segen (Daniella Kertesz). Gerry sees that Israel is letting Palestinians into the city through the wall. The Palestinians are processed in a refugee camp. At the camp, a P.A. system started blasting morning prayers. The speakers reverberate loudly, and the din attracts the zombies on the other side of the wall. As the zombies grow more agitated, they swarm toward the wall, forming a human pile (coolest scene in the movie that was shown in the trailer). Gerry yells to turn off the speakers, but is too late. Some zombies reach the top of the wall and fall into Israel side. A helicopter tries to break up the human pile, but zombies throw themselves at the helicopter and bring it down.
Panic ensues and Gerry, the soldiers, and Warmbrunn run into the city. Jerry sees a stream of zombies rushing into the city but pass a bald-headed boy who crouches down and covers his ears. The soldiers fight off the zombies, but one of them bites Segen on her hand. Instinctively, Gerry reaches for a blade and chops of her hand. A solder prepares to kill her, but she didn't become infected. Gerry wraps up her hand and applies a tourniquet.
Jerusalem is being lost to the zombies. Escorting Segen, Gerry rushes to the airstrip, but the cargo plane has taken off. They see a Belarus commercial flight about to take off and standing in the plane’s path, waves machine guns at the cockpit. The plane stops and drops down a ladder.
Inside the plane, Gerry and Segen introduce themselves. Gerry gets a medical kit to change Segen's dressings. After treating her, he contemplates the images of the zombies ignoring the homeless guy, the gimpy soldier, and the terminal boy. He has a revelation. He calls his wife and talks to Thierry. He asks Thierry to find the nearest World Health Organization facility from Israel. Gerry heads up to the cockpit and waves his phone at the camera. After taking the call, the pilot tells Gerry that they are headed to Cardiff, Wales.
The flight attendants are preparing the passengers for food when one opens a cabinet door. A zombie springs out and bites her. Gerry notices a commotion in the back section, and peeks through a door and sees the back section turning into zombies. Calmly, he mimes everyone in his section to be quiet and to give him luggage to barricade themselves. Everyone is quietly giving luggage, forming a barricade, but one person panics and drops a luggage. The noise attracts the zombies which plow through the barricade. One is about to bite Gerry when Segen shoots it. Gerry retreats to Segen and sees grenades on her vest. They nod, strap in, and Gerry throws a grenade into the zombie mob. The explosion creates a hole that sucks out the zombies. It depressurizes the plane, causing it to crash land onto a field in Wales.
Gerry wakes up from the crash. A metal pole is impaled through his side. He unbuckles and drops to the ground. He finds Segen around the crash site. Segen supports Gerry as they hike to the WHO facility through the abandoned streets. In front of the WHO building, Gerry collapses.
Aboard the aircraft carrier, Thierry hears that the Belarus flight has crashed and deemed Gerry dead. Because his family is no longer considered essential, they are shipped off to a refugee camp.
Gerry wakes up in the facility, strapped to a gurney. He has been treated for his wounds (so has Segen). Two scientists appear, and one asks why Gerry came. Gerry sees one of them has his phone, and asks them to call the UN to vouch for him. Thierry picks up (he took the phone from Karin) and informs Gerry about his family.
Gerry theorizes to three scientists (a young woman joined the two older men) that the zombies ignore the sick, because the zombie pathogen needs a healthy host to reproduce and spread. Gerry wants to inject himself with a treatable pathogen to make himself ill to test his theory. The woman scientist says bacterial pathogens are best candidates, unfortunately, all the pathogens are stored in a lab in Wing B. One scientist shows on CCTV Wing-B: zombies occupy it. A scientist there was examining infected blood samples, when he accidentally infected himself and in turn, infected everyone in Wing B.
One good thing is that the zombies in Wing B are all dormant they stay dormant when there is no one to infect. Gerry can retrieve the pathogen if he doesn't arouse the zombies. They are in Wing A, connected to Wing B by a sky bridge. The door connecting the two wings is barricaded. Gerry, Segen, and one of the scientists made armors out of magazines and hold an axe, a bat, and a crowbar as weapons. The scientist tells the group to seal the door if they don't make it.
Gerry and the group slowly make their way to Wing B. They avoid the zombies (by ducking through the hallway when the zombies are turned around), but the scientist accidentally kicks a metal. The zombies attack. Gerry runs and bangs the crowbar to draw away the zombies for the scientist to get the pathogen vault. But Segen and the scientist abort the mission and runs back to Wing A, making it through the doors just in time with the zombies after them.
The woman scientist monitoring the mission through CCTV looks for Gerry and sees that Gerry has made it to the lab. She calls the phone in the lab to give Gerry the access code to the vault room. Gerry goes into the vault room and indiscriminately loads vials of pathogens into a metal container. As he is about to exit the vault, he sees a zombie on the other side of the locked door waiting for him.
Gerry has no choice but to infect himself on the spot. He searches for a syringe in the vault room and blindly picks a pathogen. Before injecting himself, he makes a sign to tell his family he loves them and hold it to the CCTV camera. He injects himself. After waiting awhile, Gerry unlocks the lab door. The zombie lunges at him, but stops and sniffs him, and just stands dormant.
Gerry walks to a opened vending machine and releases a mechanism, so all the soda cans drop to the ground. The noise attracts the zombies which swarm toward him. Gerry parts through the zombies and walks back. Safely back, the woman scientist injects Gerry with the vaccine.
Gerry and Segen leave the facility, each carrying a big knapsack full of pathogens. We see them on a Zodiac craft heading to the shores in Nova Scotia. Karin and the kids are waiting on the shore. Gerry narrates as we see a montage: news footage announcing the humans found a vaccine (a weaken meningitis) to disguise the soldiers, the zombies in the cities standing dormant (no one else to infect), surviving humans calling out on broadband radio.
The movie shows soldiers using flame throwers barbecuing zombies, high-rise apartment dwellers dousing the pile of zombies trying to climb the building with gasoline and lighting it up, and a video screen POV view of a drone firing a missile into a stadium full of zombies.
The humans are fighting back, Gerry says, but the war has barely begun.
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