WORLD WAR Z is about zombies, and naturally --- inevitably --- it was written by Max Brooks. Brooks knows zombies the way that Mariano Rivera knows the ninth inning, the way that Merle Haggard knows honky-tonks. He knows their foul breath, their shambolic gait, their low, guttural moans as they shuffle their way across a landscape of doom, seeking new victims to devour or to induct in their teeming undead ranks. His first book, THE ZOMBIE SURVIVAL GUIDE, provided all the information that anyone would need to avoid, survive and combat a zombie attack, with useful tips such as a timetable showing how long an infected zombie bite turns into full-fledged ghouldom.
You may not be interested in zombies, but zombies are interested in you. This is why WORLD WAR Z is such a vital document. It tells the story of a hypothetical (Brooks would say "inescapable") outbreak of what is initially called "African rabies" and eventually recognized by governments worldwide as the harbinger of global doom. Brooks follows the outbreak chronologically, from the first reported cases in rural China to its spread across Asia on the heels of frightened refugees, to a suburban parking lot in Yonkers, where the zombie hordes from Manhattan are threatening to cross the bridge into the teeth of an ambush.
The prospect of having worldwide civilization attacked by marauding hordes of zombies that are hungry for blood easily could have read like a Tom Clancy novel, with story threads of interconnected characters carrying forth a tangled plot detailing the human resistance.
There are traces of Clancy here and there in Brooks's description of anti-zombie technologies (although the most effective offensive weapon, what Brooks dubs the "Lobotomizer," is decidedly low-tech). However, the real model for WORLD WAR Z is the works of Studs Terkel, the famed oral historian.
Although WORLD WAR Z is determinedly singular, it does find a model and an inspiration from Terkel's classic THE GOOD WAR, in which he interviewed veterans of World War II. In Brooks's zombie-infested world, everyone is a veteran; all of his characters have undergone a harrowing experience. Set 10 years after the end of the war, Brooks interviews the generals, leaders, combat grunts and civilians thrust into panicked flight.
Just as the scope of zombie terror is universal, so is the scope of WORLD WAR Z. Brooks details the anti-zombie resistance in South Africa (which pioneered aspects of the resistance), Israel (where Arabs and Jews combine against the zombie threat), South Korea (which may still face a zombie onslaught from the secretive North Korean bunkers) and Antarctica (one of the few zombie-free zones in the world, as zombies freeze solid in bitter weather).
Of course there are people out there reading this review who are itching to say something sensible, sane and reasonable, such as "There's no such thing as zombies." I don't know for a fact that Brooks would scoff at such a sentiment, although he very well may. (In the alternate reality of WORLD WAR Z, his ZOMBIE SURVIVAL GUIDE is a bestseller.) However, the rest of us know that there aren't such things as zombies, that the living dead aren't massing on the outskirts of our cities, that we are not in any practical danger ourselves of shuffling down city streets seeking to devour the brains of the living. But you never know. It could happen.
The most satisfying parts of WORLD WAR Z are those that comment on the real threats that menace civilization. Brooks makes a point of interviewing the heroes of the Zombie War --- a sculptor turned watch-commander, a Japanese shut-in turned samurai, a medieval historian turned claymore-armed defender. However, he also talks to the war profiteers, the spin doctors and the mercenaries whose actions and inactions contributed to the zombie menace.
WORLD WAR Z is an entertaining look at the apocalypse, but it's also a serious, satirical look at crisis management, our preparedness for the unthinkable, and the will to survive even in the direst of circumstances.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on September 12, 2006
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War