World War Z by Max Brooks

29 09 2010

Long overdue review here, but I loved this book and finally was able to get around to writing about it.

Let’s just face it: you’re going to have to go ahead and read World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War for one of two reasons and you’d better just go ahead and get on top of that. Either you’re going to realize that the Zombie Apocalypse is going to happen any freaking day now and that you’d best prepare for what’s coming, and because what’s better for that than reading a novel about it? Or you’re going to go watch the movie when it comes out in 2012 because Brad Pitt is executive producing and starring in it and after Inglourious Basterds, why the hell wouldn’t you? Nazis? Zombies? Hell to the yes.

Either works for me, because if the zombies do come, I’m going to be ready and you’d better be too or I’ll leave you in a ditch no matter how much love you. I think my almost 3 year old niece is fantastic, but I’ve declared to her family before, after watching her run and play hide and seek, that when THEY come, she’s zombie chow and will be out in the first round.

If you haven’t looked at the book at all, it’s not what you’d expect from a horror novel and barely fits the genre if you ask me. First, it’s not so much scary as it is horrific. Basically, if reading Nostradamus freaks you out a little (or even just watching the documentaries of it on the History Channel, because I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about-I’ve never read and probably will never read Nostradamus), then this book will do the same for many of the same reasons. They access the same whole oh-shit-we’re-boned part of the brain. Second, it’s barely what you’d call a novel, or rather it doesn’t have a traditional novel format. It’s more a series of interviews that make up a novel, which isn’t unheard of but is different than your standard boy meets zombie story. Third, holy crap, it’s going to happen just like this and Max Brooks thought of every single little thing and what to do about it. Hint: make lobotimizers.

When I sit back, drink beer and wax philosophical about the zombie survival story as a subgenre of horror, I normally get around to the point of saying that these kinds of stories are really mostly about the humans. The zombies are just sort of a blind force leading to mass hysteria and tragedy, like asteroids hitting the earth or a famine or like if Sarah Palin won the Presidential election. True, you can discuss different flavors of zombies and that’s fun: Do they talk? Do they run? Are they intelligent? Is it a disease or are they undead? But to be honest that’s really not the point. The good zombie stories have more in common with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road than they do with any of the vampire stories. Like the nuclear apocalypse story, we confront the agents of our destruction and find that it is us-in the zombie story, literally so, because the zombies are us and we consume ourselves into oblivion.

The best thing about zombie stories are the survivors themselves. I think a lot of people would just go ahead and choose the Charlize Theron route and wander off into the darkness and get themselves eaten up and they’d be the lucky ones. But the focus is on the ones who aren’t going to just lie down and take it. The survivors are the ones who have to make the really ghastly decisions and sacrifices, and that’s why it belongs in horror. The scariest thing is having to live through that and hold on. Survivors not only have to fight the monsters on the outside but the monsters within.

This is why World War Z rocks. The zombies themselves aren’t particularly threatening, especially since the story takes place 10 years after the war against the zombies has already been won. But what people recall through all of the interviews are the massive amounts of horrible crap that human beings did to each other all along the way. How did the zombies happen? Humans. How come we weren’t able to stop it early? Humans. Why were so few people able to be saved? Humans. The zombies did their job and ate people, sure. The really horrific crap came from the decisions humans made about how to deal with each other. Think Donner party on steroids with a hibachi.

The brilliance of this novel and its format as opposed to other stories is that it is a bird’s eye, big picture view of the entire scenario. I mean, normally, what you read about are the little pockets of survivors and what they have to deal with on the small scale. Think, for example, about Dawn of the Dead (if you’ve seen it). It’s a small group, the movie is mostly about how the characters’ own weaknesses are overcome but sacrifices are made, and they grow and survive, but there’s always the lingering despair that, in the end, they just won’t make it.

Brooks examines it as a comprehensive history instead. It is written as a history in raw documentary format, as the narrator interviews survivors from every walk of life from the grunt soldier, to the young girl survivor, to the head of the military, to the scientist. And from all the little pieces, you get this whole grand picture of everything going to absolute hell.

What strikes me is how Brooks thought of it all. I may not be very imaginative, but the way I see it, he covered every possible angle here. Every potential problem that could come up as zombies ate the face off the earth, Brooks thought of it. He thought of how it had to be countered and the repercussions of all of that. Here’s a small example (and a bit of a minor spoiler, so don’t read the rest of this paragraph if you want to avoid that sort of thing): Zombies aren’t the only things that will eat your face. But what’s even more horrible than the dead coming to get you are the crazies who snap and think that they’re going to survive by actually becoming the enemy. These wackos lose all touch with reality and start acting like zombies themselves. It’s really spooky, because zombies are scary by themselves, but what about crazy people zombies? In fact, the soldiers telling you about them and how they had to deal with them is pretty horrifying. It’s apparently quite hard to tell the difference between a real zombie and a faker. But what’s even more frightening is that these souls are totally lost but not dead, but you need to shoot their asses anyway and quick. You can’t spare the resources, time or take the risk to try and save them. Oh, and there’s another really creepy part of what happens when a real zombie comes across a fake one. Hint: the real zombies didn’t get the memo that they’re on their team. I blame the post office.

Anyway, I love zombie stories, games, movies, you freakin’ name it. Zombies rule and a little piece of me likes to think, you know, it’s because zombies are honest. You know where you stand with them. They’re dependable. Zombies make a great plot for the kind of misanthropic folks like me who think the world might just be going to hell anyway. World War Z is must read for any zombie enthusiast.

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3 10 2010
ποτμος έτοιμος (Doom is at hand) « Trolley Rage

[…] education by calling up random quotes in Ancient Greek, I’ve decided that maybe I should follow Rob’s example and start to read zombie stories to prepare myself for the inevitable, inexorable march […]

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