By Tom Demerly.
The Max Brooks book, World War Z, opens today as a major summer blockbuster movie already projected to hit $50 million in its first weekend. This review is for the original book.
World War Z is dry-mouth terrifying. A book so masterful and infectious it is actually threatening. Brooks’ unique writing style weaves a sinister tapestry of fiction and reality. And therein lies the horrifying aspect of both this story and the style it is written in.
I am not a fan of the horror genre, either in film or books. I’ve seen enough real horror that the two-dimensional themes of mock horror are pale and irreverent to me. The people who play zombie video games and go to “zombie chase” events boggle me as shielded sheep so removed from the real world they need the mock stimulus of false terror. There is plenty of real terror in the world. I read World War Z at the urging of a friend who works in government service. “I don’t like zombie stories” I told her. “This book,” she said, “has nothing to do with zombies.”
As with other great horror literature from Frankenstein to Dracula and including George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead, this story works because of its placement in history. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, published in 1818, foreshadowed advances in medicine and science that were developed before the ethics to employ them. It’s a reality we continue to moderate to this day with genetic engineering and patent protection of organisms. The somewhat earlier Bram Stoker novel Dracula wrestled with themes of sexual revolution and religious skepticism.
“The most terrifying aspect of World War Z is not how the zombies behave, it’s how the living react.”
Max Brooks addresses the terror of a world unified in death that rises up to consume the living. His tale narrates the stages of any uprising, whether it is an uprising of the undead, or an impoverished nation zombified by oppression and lack of human rights. In both a zombie uprising or the Arab Spring the most terrifying aspect of World War Z is not how the zombies behave, its how the living react.
For readers acquainted with the tapestry of world events, uprisings and human nature this book rings so true and authentic it raises goose bumps. The book features interviews with key characters in the history of the war. One particularly haunting passage chronicles the experience of a pharmaceutical executive who patented an early “antidote” for the disease spread by the dead that “zombifies” people. “Americans were still praying to the God of science to save them” he rationalized about the false antidote his company introduced. There is even a narration of new programs to reduce the dependency of the public on government aid needed to “repel zombies”. It reads so closely to a BBC headline your mind races to weave together countless real world parallels.
World War Z is a story that wedges itself into the tiny fissures of human culture, then uses a major dose of fear and a minor extrapolation of fiction to wedge them open. As you read the book you begin to look at culture around you and realize how frail it is, and how few contingencies there are. Most crowded cities are only a power failure, natural disaster, government uprising or other issue away from the scenes described in the book. The fear cultured in this book is the reason why people store canned food and move to the hills. By the time you get to the end of the story, that sounds like a more viable, safer and more sustainable lifestyle that commuting to a 9 to 5 job in Los Angeles.
As you experience the trauma and stress of World War Z you are held in some measure of relief that fiction weaves very simple and uncomplicated enemies. The zombies are unfeeling, not truly living, not at all human. They are absolutely evil. Few enemies in real life are so clearly evil. That makes the story more convenient and underscores the reason why every great leader rallies against the threat of a great enemy- real or contrived. After years of grey conflicts against complex enemies the zombies provide a convenient venting of the collective angst, something societies often crave. It’s another dangerous undercurrent of this tale.
While George Romero pre-dated this story with Night of the Living Dead his metaphor was against prejudice and racism. Max Brooks seems to use his zombies as a culture unified in death rising against a dwindling society of the living. One of the themes oddly missing from World War Z, for all its realism, is any commentary on social media. That omission is haunting, and it isn’t hard to imagine that the virus infecting Brooks’ zombie horde is the virus of instant communication and borderless association, the same way social media crosses borders and infects with almost no resistance.
Most people will see the movie World War Z, and I say you should read the book too. It is a story of the mass psyche, the worst of human nature and most horrifying susceptibilities of society. The story is so relevant and the skill in delivery is so masterful it belongs on the shelf with the great horror classics.