'World War Z', by Max Brooks

'World War Z', available from Amazon.

4 stars for 'World War Z'

Zombies have had an odd, and unexpected, surge in popularity recently. After many, many years of being the sole province of a unique brand of particularly terrible horror movies – all trying, and more often than not failing, to capture the success of George Romero's own original films – they've suddenly managed to shamble their way into popular culture. And, now that they're here, they seem reluctant to leave.

It probably wont be much longer until we all come to the conclusion that we're sick of the damn things. But, until that happens, we may as well make the most of it – and, thankfully, there's a fair amount to enjoy.

World War Z, by Max Brooks (the son of Mel Brooks, for fans of trivia) takes an unusual approach to the standard 'zombies rise from the dead and eat everyone' tale – deviating from the usual format in a variety of ways. First of all, it rests on an oddly optimistic premise, in a genre typically defined by intense pessimism and overall helplessness, by taking place in a world where the human race was ultimately able to win out in its war against the undead – though, admittedly, this victory came at a high price, and after many close calls.

In the world of World War Z, the war against the living dead has been fought and won, and now the human race is struggling to rebuild. The structure of the book is bases around a series of interviews with survivors of this war, giving first-hand accounts of experiences from around the world. Many of these tales can by taken to stand alone, linked to each other only indirectly, or as a part of the greater picture. The linking narrative, that of the nameless interviewer (who, for the sake of simplicity, can be thought of as Max Brooks himself) gathering information for a report, is quite possibility the least interesting aspect of the novel – though, it is also a very effective device that allows the world-wide scale of the troubles to be displayed better than it could have been in a more straight-forward tale.

Structured in chronological order, the interviews trace the origins of the virus – its source, and the ways in which it was able to spread so rapidly – before moving on to an account of the darkest days of the war, when it seemed as though the human race as a whole was on the way out. And, finally, finishing with the changes in tactics and strategy that allowed the human race to effectively fight back and ultimately prevail.

The focus on these 'after the fact' interviews brings with it another of the major changes to the typical zombie tale. Since each interviewee obviously had to survive in order to be able to tell their story, much of the usual tension of the immediate threat is lost. In its place is the more subtle, and perhaps more effective, human drama of the trauma suffered by the survivors. Taking the usual trope of the more serious approach to zombie tales – what the characters are willing to do to survive – a step further by forcing characters to look back on what they actually did.

The stories told throughout can be thought of as being broken into three distinct sections, with three distinct themes. The first, outlining the origins of the virus and its rapid spread, is defined by the sense of uncertainty and fear felt by those who first encountered it. The second, outlining the darkest days of the war, is where you will find the most personal stories. The ones concerned with hopelessness and loss, and the struggle to survive – not surprisingly, this is also where you will find the stories that make for the most uncomfortable reading. In the last, you find a sense of tentative hope, as the tide of the war turns back against the walking dead.

Overall, the individual stories combine to paint one of the most complete pictures you're ever likely to find of a world faced by this unique threat. The amount of thought and research put in to the ways various nations may respond, and the various tactics that may be employed, is clear. While some of the tales may stretch credibility just a bit too far, even for a book about zombies, for the most part the novel treats the subject matter with the degree of seriousness that is likely one of the reasons why the genre has managed to become so popular.

'World War Z' audiobook.

For those interested, the audiobook, casting Max Brooks himself as the interviewer and with a cast that includes Mark Hamill and Alan Alda, is also highly regarded.

© 2012 Dallas Matier

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TandJ profile image

TandJ 5 years ago

Great review! Did you know they are supposedly coming out with a World War Z movie?

Dallas Matier profile image

Dallas Matier 5 years ago from Australia Author


Yeah, I've heard about the movie, but I haven't really been following it. I think Brad Pitt is supposed to be playing the interviewer role, so it sounds like they're going to be sticking with the interview/flashback structure. But, that's really all I know, so far.

TandJ profile image

TandJ 5 years ago

Oh cool I didn't know that about Pitt. If he was as good as he was in Inglorious Basterds I think he may have another hit on his hands.

Sheila Jenkins profile image

Sheila Jenkins 5 years ago

Nice review! I've read good things about this book, and this makes me want to read it even more.

I read somewhere not long ago that when we're worried over things the Republicans are doing, there's more zombie books and movies, and when the democrats have us troubled, it's vampires. An interesting theory!

Dallas Matier profile image

Dallas Matier 5 years ago from Australia Author


Well, there's often been elements of satire in some of the better regarded zombie fiction. In the original Night of the Living Dead, you had the hordes of mindless white zombies all trying to kill the black protagonist (though, I've read somewhere that that wasn't intentional - just that he cast the best actor out of the group of friends he had willing to help out). And in Dawn of the Dead, you had the rampant consumerism aspect from setting it in a mall.

World War Z has elements of that, too. It's spelled out pretty clearly, at points, that the reason the virus was able to spread so far, so fast, had as much to do with various forms of incompentant response, as anything.

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