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Book Review: World War Z by Max Brooks

By Wil Forbis

October 1st, 2008

What's the scariest kind of monster around? Zombies of course! They're so scary I'm not sure they deserve the term "monster" which seems better suited to describe some Maurice Sendak rendered ogre than a decaying, decrepit, flesh eating ghoul. In the history of horror, zombies may be a relatively "new" monster but they've quickly managed to take up comfortable residence in the darkest cellars of the human imagination. Take a look at the past 20 years of cinema and you'll find that zombie flicks easily outnumber movies about giant lizards, werewolves, vampires or mummies (which are really just zombies wrapped up in duct tape.)

So why are zombies so scary? I think there's two reasons. For one, the hoard-like nature of the zombie menace makes battle with them futile. You can kill one, a dozen, a hundred of them, but they keep coming, too mindless to be deterred by any loss to their numbers.

Second reason: zombies were once human. That gray, worm infested hand clawing through the cracks of your boarded-up window might be a former friend, neighbor or relative. As humans, we have a fundamental fear of change and zombies represent the worst form of transformation possible. We like to think that even if we lose control of our finances, our love life, our careers, we'll always maintain control of our own body. We hate to contemplate the concept that our sense of self could be replaced with a brainless, unceasing hunger for human flesh. The fear of becoming zombiefied is really just a transference of our fears of very real transformational diseases --- anything from MS to Ebola --- that have plagued mankind since the beginning.

The narrative of zombie attack has mostly been told through the medium of film --- the modern interpretation of the zombie was kicked off in George Romero's classic "Night of the Living Dead." For some reason, zombies have never thrived on the printed page, at least not until Max Brooks's 2006 novel "World War Z --- An Oral History of the Zombie War." Written as a series of interviews with survivors of a fictional (hopefully) zombie onslaught that overwhelms the world in the near future, "World War Z" manages to capture the terror of such an event in a way unachievable by even the most graphic and gory of zombie films. Indeed, upon reading Brooks's work, one could argue that the novel is the only way to capture the magnanimity of an undead Holocaust. The standard zombie film usually focuses in on a select group of people fighting the undead, even if the assumption is made that there are similar battles occurring around the globe. But as "World War Z's" fictional author records what seems like an endless array of encounters with the undead, quoting from a diverse, worldly series of characters, the reader is granted a chance to ruminate on the full scope of horror presented by such an event, a scope that is beyond a two hour movie.

Part of what makes "World War Z" work is how realistically Brooks renders his story. The technology, weaponry and locations are all described with journalistic detail. And Brooks clearly thought long and hard as to the political ramifications of a worldwide zombie attack, carefully considering the character of the nations that respond to it. China attempts to obfuscate any reports of its first encounters with the undead, giving the zombie plague a chance to thrive. The United States is lulled into a false sense of security when an ineffective zombification vaccine is allowed to come to market by politicians desperate to avoid civil unrest. Warfare is stoked between formerly friendly countries and nations with an authoritarian streak brutally clamp down on their populace in order to quell the chaos.

Brooks's black view of the effect of war on human morality --- equal parts profound and disturbing --- is perhaps "World War Z's" strongest aspect. As individuals, we like to think we subscribe to absolute values, that our loyalty to our fellow humans and our admonition against murder would not be shaken by dire circumstances. But when one of the interviewees recalls how refugees reverted to cannibalism in order to survive a harsh winter in frozen North America (zombies's one weakness in the book is that they freeze in cold), it rings true. Equally sound is the novel's descriptions of "quislings," normal people so traumatized by the undead onslaught that they come to behave like zombies, ceding their consciousness to its most reptilian level and wandering aimlessly in search of human flesh. And while it's shocking to hear of nations, the United States included, rescuing part of their populace by offering other parts as zombie bait, one can't help but see the logic of such a strategy, and come to view it is necessary. Victory in the zombie war, as in any war, comes at a high cost.

But not every story in "World War Z" is a cynical downer. There are plenty of tales of courage, innovation and the tenacity of the human spirit. In Japan, an elderly, suicidal beggar, blinded as a child by the Hiroshima blast, reclaims his honor by becoming a scourge of the undead. A female Air Force officer who parachutes into zombie country is prodded to fight her way to safety by a voice on her radio that may not even exist. A Navy diver recounts the travails of fighting hordes of underwater zombies whose undead state allows them to walk across the ocean floors. And I challenge any reader to keep a dry eye while reading about the K-9 Urban Warfare school and the sacrifices our furry four-legged friends made in the battle against zombies.

"World War Z" isn't perfect. Brooks overuses his preference for irony. It's mildly amusing, albeit unlikely, to hear that Cuba has become a thriving capitalistic state as a result of the zombie war. But eyes are rolling by the time that we discover that secular Russia has become a religious theocracy. And Brooks's tendency to mimic zombie maestro George Romero's predisposition for using zombie narratives as a criticism of consumer culture seems unwieldy and unnecessary. (In my experience, zombie holocausts seldom fit neatly into any one political agenda.) But these are small marks against an otherwise compelling book.

It may be tempting for readers to view "World War Z" as an engaging but fundamentally trivial work. I would argue that it deserves more serious consideration. In the unlikely but very real possibility of a zombie virus spreading across our planet, transforming its populace into moaning, decaying, flesh-eating monstrosities, "World War Z" can serve as a font of knowledge. Certainly it contains a thoughtful rumination on mistakes that should be avoided, but it can also shine as an inspirational light for the surviving members of the human race determined to eradicate the zombie menace. Indeed, those who scorn the idea of reading the book may be unable to recognize the first signs of the zombie plague when it does surface. Can you afford to take that chance?

Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email -

Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.


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