**This article discuses the novel only. The film by the same name is a waste of time that will not be mentioned beyond this sentence.**
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War is what you need to read on a chill October day when you want to get in the spoopy spirit. When you want to feel your skin crawl, the hair on the back of your neck raise, and your stomach flutter nervously. Contrary to what you may expect, it is not the ghoulish, moaning undead that will make you feel fidgety, jumping at the sound of the heat kicking back on while cold rain pounds on your windowpanes. It’s the unsettling sense of realism that permeates each and every page.
World War Z is an apocalyptic horror novel by Max Brooks (yes, son of the one and only Mel Brooks). The novel is a collection of interviews with survivors of the decade-long Zombie War (known by many names in the years after its start: World War Z, Z War One, The Crisis, The Walking Plague, etc.). Max Brooks, an agent with the United Nation’s Postwar Commission, compiled the interviews during his work on an official report for the Commission. He was strongly affected by the stories of these survivors, and when his superiors had him use only raw data in his report he decided it was important to share the personal stories of survivors across the world.
The interviews are grouped into chapters that focus on certain aspects and time periods of WWZ; chapters are titled things like “Warnings” (the first signs of the outbreak and lack of government action on them), “the Great Panic” (the time which society learned of the severity of the plague and began panicking in large scale, trying to escape cities), and “Around the World and Above” (survivors from different countries discuss their nation’s recovery from the War, and an astronaut stranded on the International Space Station during the disaster discusses his experience). The breakdown of the novel into these sections does an amazing job of walking the reader through the beginning of the war and it’s development, reactions of various governments (or lack thereof), and the eventual path toward recovery.
Brooks provides a wide spectrum of experiences by using characters from all walks of life. And he brings them to life so thoroughly; it’s heartbreaking to hear their stories, to read about their struggle to survive and their loss of hope, and their loss of faith in humanity. Excerpts from a chapter interviewing a woman with wartime psychological trauma so severe she is trapped in the mind of a four year old still come unbidden to my mind frequently. Brooks tells the tales of mothers trying to save their children from the hands of the undead, of children who watched their parents die of illness, struggling to feed them in the wilderness, tales of government officials fraught with the decision to put the needs of many above the needs of the few. Even the tales of people who took advantage of others during the War—pharmaceutical developers who created a false vaccine to profit from the panicking masses, smugglers who took exorbitant payments to sneak infected people from quarantined zones only to quicken the spread of the plague—can tug at your heart as you read.
The novel is not for the faint of heart. Brooks’ interviewees describe the horror of the undead in upsettingly beautiful detail, describing their bloated flesh, the unsettling lack of odor, how their bodies look when blown to pieces by improvised military weapons. Bad things happen to good people, good things happen to no one. WWZ is a novel that did more to demonstrate the fragility and unfairness of life and death than my college philosophy classes focused on those very subjects ever did.
Brooks did an impressive amount of research for his novel, and the dedication shows. He created a potential history with excruciating detail, conferring with real life military experts to piece together how certain nations may react to such a plague. In his future, North Korea has been eerily emptied, all citizens assumed to be underground in bunkers (and possibly zombified). Russia becomes a theocracy resorting to compulsory breeding programs to rebuild their decimated population. Israel and Palestine make peace, joining forces to save both their people from the hordes as best they can. Cuba becomes a bastion of trade and safety.
Things are turned completely upside down from the world we know, but Brooks’ lines of reasoning for each event makes perfect sense in context of his narrative and it honestly makes me sometimes wish for the horrors of a zombie plague… because in WWZ, we see that humanity can in fact bring itself back from the brink of extinction. Humanity can pull together to change and adapt to a new way of zombie-filled life, and it’s inspiring. Never has a book been able to fill me with so much despair and so much optimism all at once.
It is also important to note that the audiobooks for WWZ are phenomenal and perhaps even more unsettling than reading the print version. There is an abridged, fully cast version of the audiobook (featuring Mark Hamil!) that is an amazing listen, playing almost like you are listening to a radio report interviewing these survivors. I’m personally a fan of the unabridged audiobook read by Jim Zieger, which I am told by some is too dry, but I find it wonderful. Zeiger reads with a matter of fact tone that reminds me once more of a radio report (perhaps something from NPR), but he gives each character their own voice and way of speaking in a way that clearly separates the characters from each other but still maintains the cohesiveness of a single speaker.
World War Z is hands down one of my favorite novels of all time. It’s on my “you’re stranded on a desert island” list. It’s unsettling yet inspiring, fantastical yet rooted in harsh reality. The novel’s ability to bring a sense of realism to what is typically considered a somewhat campy horror trope is something to be admired and thoroughly enjoyed.
Plus I feel that after a few reads I am even more prepared for the inevitable undead plague than I ever was before, and that is never a bad thing!