By Max Brooks
Published September 2006
Date reviewed: February 5, 2007
Originally published in: The Daily Cardinal
It’s the same story in most every zombie film. Walking dead appear and begin to sweep across the world, joined by their freshly gnawed victims to form an unstoppable army. Small pockets of determined survivors band together to battle the horde, a few die in appropriately horrific style and in the end humanity survives reduced but changed for the better.
These conventions form the outline of Max Brooks’ “World War Z,” but there’s a key difference between the book and films: the book feels real. Brooks, who became the most prolific zombie author since H.P. Lovecraft with his wildly entertaining “Zombie Survival Guide,” has written a contemporary holocaust novel which could become the definitive undead novel.
Brooks maps the entire course of the “Zombie War,” beginning with scattered outbreaks in the Far East and spreading through tourists and refugees hiding infected zombie bites. The hordes push humans to isolated locations – South Pacific Islands, Rocky Mountains and aircraft carriers – where they begin to fight back with new weapons and tactics, preparing to defeat an enemy that feels no fear and needs decapitation to finally drop.
The structure Brooks takes for “World War Z” is a masterstroke. Rather than write in conventional novel format, he tells the story in the guise of a postwar researcher collecting interviews for the reformed United Nations. The book consists of interviews with over 40 different subjects, written as though they were taken verbatim off a tape recorder.
This interview format allows Brooks to create stories worth listening to, as he can use an endless supply of voices to tell how the world dealt with the calamity. Soldiers speak in a veteran tone with “G” and “Zack” to describe the enemy, children who grew up in the combat emotionlessly describe dead parents and government officials desperately try to justify being caught off guard.
There’s also some particularly entertaining individual stories, which will no doubt come in handy when Brad Pitt’s film company develops its promised adaptation. Vivid entries include a Japanese hacker climbing down an apartment building armed only with knowledge gathered online and a supply pilot shot down in the swamps of Louisiana, working to overgrown freeways for pickup.
What the stories do particularly well, however, is depict a postwar world that feels entirely plausible. Cuba, thanks to its geography and shrewd dealing with refugees, is now the world’s economic superpower, while a decimated Russia has reformed into a Holy Russian Empire. Iran is decimated by nuclear weapon use, Canada is deforested for fuel and North Korea’s entire population disappears into underground tunnels – with no clues if anyone is still alive.
This keen interpretation of politics is central to “World War Z,” not only to create a new world but to implement zombie satire in the style of George Romero. In Brooks’ world, Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War are only precursors to government incompetence – lying to avoid widespread panic, an impotent bureaucracy and an army devoid of volunteers all pitch in to hang bait signs on the average citizen.
By the end of the novel, Brooks will have his readers convinced that if zombies were to attack tomorrow, even with his guide no hope of survival is nil. It’s that tension, imagination and realism that keeps a reader completely gripped by “World War Z” – a book which establishes Brooks as one of the cleverest young authors out there and reanimates the zombie genre.