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From left, Brad Pitt as Gerry Lane, Abigail Hargrove as Rachel Lane, and Mireille Enos as Karin Lane in a scene from World War Z.Jaap Buitendijk/Paramount Pictures/The Associated Press

For more than 40 years, blank-eyed creatures have shuffled and scrambled across our movie screens, providing us with midnight movie screams and a pervasive, malleable metaphor. Starting with George Romero's no-budget Night of the Living Dead in 1968, zombies have signified any number of automatic, implacable drives – the folly of the Vietnam War, rampant consumerism, class struggle, or the "I'm with Stupid" emblem of such literary mash-ups as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Hamlet Z.

By now, "zombie apocalypse" scenarios has been used by everyone from the Centers for Disease Control, to architecture competitions and estate planners, to disaster game responses. Is there anything new to say, or is another zombie movie just evidence of brainless automatism?

Leave it to Brad Pitt, producer and star of World War Z, to try to put the zip back in zombie. Billed as the most expensive zombie movie ever, World War Z arrives on the screen as a movie with a troubled reputation. The film is based on a 2006 novel by Max Brooks (the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft) – an "oral history" of a decade-long zombie war that was inspired by Studs Terkel's The Good War. In adapting Brooks's book to a single-hero Hollywood narrative, Pitt, the producer, went through four writers and a number of production snafus, as documented in Vanity Fair, leading to a reshoot of the movie's ending which ballooned the budget up from $125-million to $200-million (U.S.), delaying the original release date by six months.

Hollywood precedent says those kinds of onset troubles should result in a John Carter or After Earth-sized hubristic belly-flop, but here's the surprise: World War Z is a perfectly decent thriller, the smartest and most sober action film so far this summer and a grown-up addition to the zombie canon. For Pitt, who shepherded Moneyball and The Tree of Life through similar production hell, here's more proof that, as a producer, he's in for the long game.

World War Z is no pants-wetting, midnight-movie scare fest. It's rated PG-13 in the United States, which means the undead rarely appear in close-up, oozing fluids through head holes, or dying in splatteriffic ways. Instead, seen in panoramic shots, they typically swarm like vermin or teem like bacteria under a microscope. Neither is World War Z a stern political allegory, although the various ways the North Koreans, the Israelis and the Americans cope, or fail to cope, with their zombie dilemmas is pointed. Rather, World War Z resembles the sombre speculative fiction of Contagion or Children of Men, though situated more in the family-movie comfort zone.

Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a United Nations inspector and fixer, dragged out of early retirement and, essentially, blackmailed into trying to find patient zero in this zombie outbreak. Gerry's wife, Karin (the excellent, understated Mireille Enos of the AMC series The Killing), two daughters and a boy they pick up en route, are stowed on a U.S. warship in the Atlantic. As long as Gerry's alive and helping save humanity, the family is safe. When he's dead or goes offline, his family is as expendable as the rest of the non-military masses. Before he disembarks, Gerry leaves Karin with a satellite phone, though the daily domestic check-ins, sometimes in mid-zombie attack, aren't always timely.

The strength of Marc Forster's direction is less in character and more in the film's sense of scale and pacing, and in those long, unsettling moments of uncertainty before the convulsions of action: A Philadelphia morning gridlock jam turns strange when an explosion takes place at the intersection ahead, and an out-of-control tractor trailer goes barrelling through and over the other vehicles. The zombies, like rabid animals or suicide bombers, have no sense of self-preservation. In South Korea at an American military base, they race straight into automatic-weapons fire. In Israel, they scramble over each others' backs to climb giant walls, and throw themselves down on the screaming crowds with the fervour of cruise-ship tourists hitting the lunch buffet.

All this is vividly memorable, though World War Z plays it safe (no surprise given its massive budget), delivering a series of action set-pieces with little room for dramatic nuance. It might even be fair to say that, apart from Gerry's decision to abandon his family in order to save them, the movie avoids moral complexity like the plague. When Gerry catches a plane out of Jerusalem, for the last leg of his journey to a World Health Organization centre in Wales, he has picked up a wounded female Israeli soldier (Daniella Kertesz). Her presence suggests she might be an erotic temptation but no, Gerry is as single-minded as a zombie in his family devotion.

The movie's climax (part of the rewrite from the original film) is a cat-and-mouse sequence in a lab that pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock's 50-year-old contagion thriller, The Birds, but the comparison isn't flattering. In The Birds, the avian attacks are a manifestation of the seething tensions between the characters. In World War Z, it's all about Gerry, with Pitt casting himself in a role consistent with his familiar superdad persona, saving the world while preserving his family. Perhaps if he showed a few wayward appetites of his own, the zombies' onslaughts would get deeper under the skin, rather than looking like a call for a super-dose of Lysol.