Trends come in cycles. Recently the popular culture has seen the return of an old and familiar staple, the zombie. The Hollywood ghouls started out in the spooky black and white classics of the 30s and 40s, but they were branded into the baby boomer consciousness via George Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead. To be fair, they’ve never been away much since, thanks to Living Dead‘s various sequels, semi-sequels, and remakes. But in 2002 British film wunderkind Danny Boyle gave the genre a shot of adrenalin with 28 Days Later, about a deadly virus ravaging London and turning survivors into hyperkinetic, psychotic killers. For zombie fans, the die was cast.
In 2003 writer Max Brooks – son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft – wrote The Zombie Survival Guide (TZSG), a tongue-in-cheek “how-to” on surviving a zombie onslaught as society breaks down. TZSG was a New York Times best –seller thanks to its dark humor and occasional light tone. The book’s characteristics, however, did not mask the fact that underneath the surface it contained some very useful survival information, and it’s easy to see that Brooks did his research. His work must have fuelled a thirst somewhere, because a month later Image Comics began publishing Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead (now a hit TV series on the AMC cable network), describing the adventures of survivors of a zombie apocalypse. The undead were officially back in style.
Not to be outdone, Brooks took zombies one step further and in 2006 came out with World War Z (WWZ), describing the entire history of a massive, deadly zombie onslaught – a war, basically between humans and the undead (“Z” for zombie, if you haven’t yet figured that out). The zombies are the same as those in TZSG, making the book a follow-up of sorts. According to Brooks, zombies are humans re-animated by an incurable disease, spread by a zombie bite or having open pores exposed to zombie tissue. Taking a page from Romero’s model, they are slow, brainless creatures completely devoid of intelligence, whose sole instinct is to eat live flesh. They are incapable of tiring, cannot drown, and can only be killed by a blow to the head.
Other than that, WWZ is very different in style and tone than its slim predecessor. Patterned in structure after Studs Terkel’s classic oral history of WW2, The Good War, WWZ is not one story per se like Kirkman’s comic but rather a series of individual accounts telling the story from the initial sudden outbreak to mankind’s victory and the sad, weary aftermath. The book’s narrator (in whose voice Brooks writes), a member of the (fictional) United Nations Post War Committee, is commissioned to interview survivors from mankind’s war against zombies. Like a twisted travelogue, Brooks shuttles around the world, as survivors running the gamut from military, clergy, health services, government officials, security, and ultimately the average citizen describe their experience and the ghastly horrors they witnessed.
In a chilling opener, the story begins quickly but methodically. In a remote, rural province in China, a young boy goes diving for sunken booty with his father. His father is pulled down by something unknown and the boy escapes but is nipped on the heel. The poor infected lad becomes “patient zero”, infecting others and kickstarting the zombie pandemic. Once the infection goes beyond the village, it acts as an out-of-whack Rube Goldberg contraption, setting in motion a chain of events that will change the world. Infected Chinese refugees begin streaming across the border into Central Asia. Others fly out to Europe, bringing the infection to the continent. The Chinese government feverishly tries to halt the spread and invents a military crisis involving Taiwan to mask their armed build up and activities. Only after hitting the poor South African ghetto townships does the world begin to take notice, calling it the “African Rabies”. Israel is one of the first to respond, imposing a national quarantine, granting entry only to uninfected Jews and Palestinians, and calling out the Israel Defense Forces for border security.
Through the illegal organ trade, the infection reaches Brazil and once in Mundus Novus it begins to wreak havoc. Zombies rip through an unprepared United States, as corruption, government incompetence, and overconfidence result in some heavy bungling and widespread deaths. Millions all over the world begin fleeing their homes for safety, as the “Great Panic” begins. At a major, decisive battle in Yonkers, New York, American soldiers fight a massive and frightening wave of undead as if they were fighting living soldiers. Using inappropriate techniques against an undead army – such as attempting to “demoralize them” – they fail miserably and the American forces are brutally defeated on live TV. Other countries encounter similar disastrous results and world civilization as we know it begins to crumble.
The turning point happens in South Africa, as the government adopts an old plan devised by a former official from the apartheid days, Paul Redeker. Named the “Redeker Plan”, it proposes creating small protected safe zones where survivors can reorganize and recuperate, surrounded by large groups of refugees serving as a distraction and live bait for the zombies. It might be cruel and heartless, but it works. Other countries adopt similar plans and the world, finally, organizes and begins to hit back.
World War Z is a mammoth, sprawling epic – almost larger-than-life in its scope – and is impressive on a number of counts. Brooks leaves no continent untouched as he emphasizes the worldwide extent of the war. Also, he did his homework with the fervor of a doctoral student, in researching history, politics, geography, business, political science, survivalism, world cultures, military, current events, and more. As a result, he is able to touch upon each country’s cultural sensibilities, mentality, and nuances with a gritty and uncanny realism. In doing so, the book reads like a “what if” scenario. For example, European students hole up in castles, turning them into impenetrable fortresses. What’s that like? Brooks nails it. French resistance fighters take to the sewers to combat the undead, extracting heavy losses in yard-by-yard fighting in the dark, disgusting underground tunnels. Brooks describes it so well that you can smell it. Thousands of middle-class Americans pack their campers and station wagons and flee to northern forests. Inexperienced in survival, limited in supplies and medicine – what do you think would happen next? I won’t reveal the grisly aftermath, although you can probably guess for yourself.
Brooks pays considerable attention to society’s wobbly attempts to recuperate, and tosses darts at both citizens and government. What happens when pitifully few survivors have functional blue-collar skills, so necessary in society’s plan to rebuild? Consider this: One government official laments the sheer numbers that are assigned to post-war re-education courses, mockingly stating that before the war they were all executives and “consultants” of some sort, but no ability to work with their hands. Also, the section on the government’s incompetence – by marketing a false vaccine – could have come today’s headlines.
Another point that Brooks makes –in a twisted slant on the global village – is that different nations are bound together not by alliances or UN-style brotherhood but by what they mutually fear. And fear they do. Everyone in the book, no matter who they are, where they are from, or what they did before the zombie infection, is bewildered, shocked, and totally confused. We empathize with everyone. While not every personal account in the book succeeds, most of them do, and Brooks offers vivid and realistic slices tied in with the hallmark of a good writer, which is human drama that jumps off the pages. Long after I finished the book, I found myself thinking about certain vignettes and rerunning them in my head. Some of the more memorable: Early in the war, veteran Russian soldiers, taken out to a remote rural location, and jittery at rumors of gruesome occurrences, stage a mutiny when suddenly and inexplicably told to shoot at children; Chinese sailors, desperate to get off land, smuggle their families into a stolen submarine and take to the seas; a lone American cargo pilot crashes in Louisiana, and survives on foot running through zombie-infested territory; in Japan, an elderly blind hotel gardener flees to the mountains, slaying zombies like a one-man army for the glory of his motherland; and in one of the book’s most interesting chapters, an American soldier involved in the final – and total – warfare describes the nitty-gritty details of his daily battle experiences.
As of this review, Brad Pitt is coming out with a big-budget movie version of World War Z, one that took years to bring to fruition. The script went through countless re-writes, and just filming it is worthy of a book in itself. Pitt has great material to work with, easily distinguishing this from some of those grade Z (no pun intended) quickies. However, he made numerous changes to the storyline and concept, effectively changing much of the premise in the process; author Brooks himself has admitted as such. In fact, the film was supposed to come out last year but was delayed because of extensive reshooting, probably making it more unlike the book. Some fans have declared in advance their lowered expectations. It’s hard to blame Pitt, though, as material of this nature is hard to adapt to the big screen, especially in a standard movie’s time frame of two to three hours. The episodic nature probably would have worked better as a mini-series. In any case, if the human drama plays out strongly – as it does in the book – and if the realism that made the book so good shines through, it will be a worthy viewing experience. But putting the big-screen adaptation aside, the book World War Z is a horror masterpiece that is essential reading for fans of the genre.