I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. Any zombie fan is going to already have read it since it came out in 2006 (wow…seven years ago?) and this year a major motion picture starring Brad Pitt came out, so now zombie fans and Brad Pitt fans are already all over it. I’m a little late to the party (fashionably late, I like to think), like usual, and now I’m wondering how I neglected reading this earlier. World War Z is a terrifying and thoughtful opus that brings zombie horror to a new level.
Told in a pseudo-documentary manner, World War Z is a collection of interviews with various survivors of a world-wide zombie war. Like Orson Welles’ radio broadcast War of the Worlds and the film The Blair Witch Project, World War Z‘s format is an exercise in verisimilitude. In an unspecified very near future zombies take over. After years of struggle, humanity survives and emerges victorious. I dumbed the plot down there, but the point is you, the reader, are reading an oral record of that struggle and the fact that you are around to read it means you survived it, too. This format is an ingenious way to foster suspension of disbelief, investing the reader more fully into the story and Brooks pulls this off expertly. I read somewhere that Brooks took inspiration from Studs Terkel’s oral history of World War II, The Good War, which was, of course, a real-life event. World War Z, being a fictional analog of that, draws from that same sense of involvement, but instead of “this happened” it is “this could have happened.”
The structure is clever but the stories within the interviews are what make World War Z exceptional. Like any great horror story, World War Z is about more than the monsters. The world of WWZ is perhaps not so different from the fears that plague this real world. Instead of zombies, though, we have earthquakes, tsunamis, terrorism, war zones, random violence and a host of other crises. Brooks addresses contemporary fears through the analogy of a zombie apocalypse. The real horror of World War Z is the despair of realizing that there is no hope, that death is preferable to living, that to survive means sacrificing one’s own humanity, that we are our own worst enemy. That is the relevance of World War Z. Ultimately, though, Brooks shows that we can prevail over our despair and that is World War Z‘s value.
World War Z is a zombie book like you’ve never read before. While it’s less a “fright fest” than a “despair dump,” World War Z brings an uncommon thoughtfulness to the zombie category with slow-burn horror and is a story that will linger with you far beyond the last page.
The zombies I talked to sort of missed the point, I think:
“Did you know that Max Brooks is Mel Brooks’ son? He sure inherited his funny bone! World War Z was hilarious!”