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Max Brooks: World War Z

Edward G.

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“World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War,” by Max Brooks (Crown Publishing, 2006), is the follow-up to his bestseller “The Zombie Survival Guide” (Three Rivers Press, 2003), but in “World War Z,” Brooks uses the zombie motif in a much more important way than is traditionally accomplished in other zombie fiction.

He credits George Romero (director of “Night of the Living Dead,” “Day of the Dead,” “Dawn of the Dead,” et al) as an inspiration for his work. Yet Brooks, in my opinion, reaches further into this subgenre and creates a greater work of fiction by using the zombie to make an important statement about the human condition.

The novel purports to be a record of interviews conducted by a journalist following an apocalyptic war with the zombies. These are the recorded memories of people who survived those times and what they experienced. Hundreds of millions of zombies were formed by hundreds of millions of other zombies attacking human beings anywhere and everywhere and causing the near-extermination of the human race. Countries were evacuated, governments collapsed and reformed, and a whole new way of waging war had to be learned.

There are many individual stories in the book and many of them could be considered short stories by themselves, but taken together they remind one of “American Psycho” or the movie “Starship Troopers.” The stories are gory, exciting, and interesting, yet their real purpose is to provide a social commentary. Horror is the vehicle, but social change is the purpose.

If “American Psycho” was all about the narcissism of the 1980's, and “Starship Troopers” was all about the propaganda that supports unnecessary wars, then “World War Z” is all about how we eat each other alive on a daily basis and think nothing of it. The theme of the novel is fictional zombies, but Brooks’ zombies become a symbol for the dog-eat-dog mentality that is a very real and prevalent in our society today.

Key to the symbol of the zombie is the fact that their brains must be destroyed in order to kill them. It’s no wonder, really, because the zombie disease—the dog-eat-dog mentality—resides in the minds of people. And it proves to be a contagious mentality inasmuch as the more people treat each other badly, the more they want to treat each other badly.

Toward the end of the book, Brooks’ character, Jessica Hendricks, is a good example of the underlying occult motivations of a zombie mentality, and our reaction to her shows that the zombie virus is alive and well in all of us. In a thinly veiled reference to the existence of the radio personality, Howard Stern, she says:

“He was doing his usual thing—fart jokes and insults and adolescent sexuality—and I remember thinking, “This man survived and my parents didn’t.” No, I try not to be bitter.”

Of course we can sympathize with her, but it's that very sympathy any of us would have that reveals the zombie contagion. For what she’s really showing us is a thought process whereby it's perfectly okay to loathe another person simply because they exist. He should be dead and her mother should be alive—but this bitterness, in my opinion, ultimately becomes the zombie mentality, because justifiable as it may be, it is mindless and cruel in its implications. After all, those who love that radio show host wouldn’t want to lose him either.

One imagines Max Brooks might have found inspiration from The Cranberries in their 1994 song, “Zombie.” The lyrics thereof describe almost the exact mentality he describes in WWZ. Of course, instead of a fictional zombie war, Dolores O'riordan sings about the real decades long war between the British and Northern Ireland. In her song, and in his book, the bottom line is created: The human race is infected with the very contagious disease of inhumanity.

One walks away from this novel understanding the seeds of ultimate apocalypse live within the brains of each and every one of us—and that must be eradicated at all costs. That kind of brain must be destroyed. Inhumanity is inherent to the mind of man, but ultimately human beings have the ability to change their minds. And when we pull away from the fictional aspect of this theme and moral, we realize that the best way to destroy a zombie brain is simply to change our own minds.

“World War Z” is a story rich in symbolism, irony, humor, horror, gore, excitement, and tragedy. It's a no-miss book for any lover of horror, and certainly any zombie aficionado. It pushes the boundaries of what even the godfather of zombies, George Romero, has established, and serves not only to entertain us but also to enlighten us. It’s one of those books that put the “great” in great fiction.

“World War Z” is soon to be a major motion picture by Plan B. Entertainment and comes out in 2012. It stars Brad Pit and is directed by Marc Forster. It will be quite something to see what they make of this story. I hope they retain its depth as well as its action and ghastly horror.

:star5:
 

Will

Active Member
Hi Edward,

Thanks for posting that review, it was an interesting read. I just wanted to clarify a point you make early on - "Yet Brooks, in my opinion, reaches further into this subgenre and creates a greater work of fiction by using the zombie to make an important statement about the human condition."

Don't you think Romero already did this in the 'of the Dead' films (especially 'Dawn of'), and likewise with other genre authors such as Matheson (granted 'I am Legend' is a work that features vampires but Matheson is on the record as citing Romero's 'Night of the Living Dead' as an inspiration).

How is 'World War Z' so different in what it sets out to do that so separates it from the (older, arguably stronger) competition? Is it just the richness and tapestry of its tales?

If so, that's cool; I am definitely curious though.
 

Edward G.

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Hello Will,

I don't see the movies of Romero having any particularly insightful revelations about the human condition, not like this book anyway. They seem to be more like gorefests. When it comes to I am Legend, I think the theme and moral derived from that movie are completely different than what is derived from World War Z.

In I am Legend, the moral seems to center around self-sacrifice for the ultimate good of humanity. In World War Z, it seems to be that we all can be zombies; we are all infected. Or at least that's how I interpret it.
 

Will

Active Member
Edward,

Romero's films not really insightful, and just gorefests! :eek: I couldn't disagree more; if you're up for the read then there's a good essay about the themes of consumerism in 'Dawn of the Dead' here and Ebert's well-rounded review here. That's one of the more widely accepted aspects of that film alone.

I likewise think that 'I Am Legend' is quite political in nature. Whilst the lead character could be seen as having made a sacrifice (of sorts) there's also the whole twist to the ending that leaves one wondering about the forces of justice, normality - Romero has said also that he thought this book was about revolution, and it's clear to see why. With regime's shifting and changing across the Middle East, it's quite apt a period in time to take a look at some of those themes touched upon in the book's conclusion. If you're the last member of any culture/society in the face of rapid and immediate change, those things you hold as normal are going to differ from that as viewed by the opposition, right? And far more dramatically too, given there's just one of you.

I think I must put World War Z onto my TBR pile with haste!

Thanks again for your review, and discourse.

Hello Will,

I don't see the movies of Romero having any particularly insightful revelations about the human condition, not like this book anyway. They seem to be more like gorefests. When it comes to I am Legend, I think the theme and moral derived from that movie are completely different than what is derived from World War Z.

In I am Legend, the moral seems to center around self-sacrifice for the ultimate good of humanity. In World War Z, it seems to be that we all can be zombies; we are all infected. Or at least that's how I interpret it.
 

beer good

Well-Known Member
I'm with Will here. One might argue that Romero's points are overly obvious and belaboured (especially in Dawn and Land), but I don't see how anyone could argue that they don't exist. (The same pretty much goes for a lot of other zombie movies - if the zombie genre has a problem, and I'm not convinced it does, then it is that it's a little too easy to use for social commentary; every now and then you wish more people would take a page from Fulci's book and just do gore and terror rather than yet another allegory of modern society...)

...Moving right along. That said, I really liked World War Z (so much so I just bought Brooks' Zombie Survival Guide, though that's also partly because I just signed up for a course in surviving zombie apocalypses). Here's my review:

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, Max Brooks.

It starts in the poorer countries. Of course it does; that's where all the major pandemics start, among the people nobody cares about. Odd happenings; a Chinese farmer attacked by a child who appears to be rabid, quickly discarded rumours from the shanty towns outside Jo'burg... the governments try to hush it up, old enemies blame each other for trying to spread panic, the smarter businessmen try to make money off it... all for nothing. Because yes, the dead are rising. When there's no more room in hell, yada yada yada. The zombies eat the flesh of the living, and all of mankind's defenses that we've put in place over the millennia - whether military, political, religious or psychological - prove hopelessly inadequate. The victims number dozens, then thousands, then millions, then billions. And every victim gets up and becomes the enemy. By the time we start figuring out what to do, it's almost too late: the entire human species is outnumbered, cornered - and as always, still at each others' throats.

Brooks' novel definitely owes a lot to the classic zombie stories - Matheson, Romero, Fulci - but where most of those stories focus on a small group of survivors, he takes a universal (if slightly US-centric) view. The whole book presents itself as a series of interviews with those who survived - from politicians and military leaders down to ordinary people who made it either by dumb luck or by committing acts just as inhuman as those of their opponents.

Of course, this sort of storytelling is so easy to get wrong - for one thing, it removes a lot of the tension, since we know right from the get-go that the war was won (after a fashion). For another, in order to make us care about these characters that are just in the story for 5-10 pages, Brooks has to pull out all the stops and resort to storytelling cliches a little too often. The good news is he's a good enough writer to pull it off (most of the time) and that the format makes it possible for him to touch down on different parts of the conflict and tell the story in detail - leaving it to the reader to piece it together into a whole.

Weaving in shades of classic post-apocalyptic tales like On the Beach, The Last Man or War of the Worlds, World War Z manages not only the genre-obligatory social critique and "are we really better than them" angle (though the latter could have been more fleshed out) but also a number of scenes that stick in my mind. The US army taking a stand that turns from PR coup into disaster and near annihilation; Russian clerics taking it upon themselves to execute all infected soldiers to spare them from suicide; mankind's last great fleet, cobbled together from everything from old warships (the HMS Victory, the Aurora) to rowboats, trying to escape out to sea; North Korea simply... disappearing; Iran and Pakistan nuking each other into oblivion to stop the billions of Chinese and Indian refugees - but of course, radiation doesn't stop zombies; American families trying to survive without training in the frozen wastes of Northern Canada; and all those... people, all those individuals.

So what if Brooks makes it very obvious which buttons he's pushing now and then? So what if we can figure out how it ends? It's chilling, riveting, and somehow painfully realistic. Four BRAAAAAAAAAAAAINS out of five.

ai22.photobucket.com_albums_b339_beergood_smilies_zombie13.gif ai22.photobucket.com_albums_b339_beergood_smilies_zombie13.gif ai22.photobucket.com_albums_b339_beergood_smilies_zombie13.gif ai22.photobucket.com_albums_b339_beergood_smilies_zombie13.gif ai22.photobucket.com_albums_b339_beergood_smilies_zombie12.gif

(Incidentally, how awesome is it that Max Brooks is Mel Brooks' and Anne Bancroft's kid?)
 

Edward G.

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Good review, Beer Good. I'm kind of wondering with WWZ if we've reached the end of any useful zombie stories. I mean any that haven't been told--to death.
 

beer good

Well-Known Member
Why thankee-sai.

The Zombie Survival Guide, being a completely objective how-to manual for surviving different degrees of zombie apocalypse, is both very similar and very different from World War Z. Yes, it's very useful - provided you're lucky enough to end up in a zombie apocalypse that works according to Brooks' rules (if just 1 out of 10 of the rotting bastards go by Romero rules, you're screwed), and provided you live in a country with ready access to a vast arsenal of firearms, military equipment and countryside (Americans, Russians and anyplace recently affected by war will do fine, Belgians not so much). The list of historical attacks that form the last 70 pages are probably interesting to historians, but might have been better as a separate book - as it is, they're too brief to be interesting, but too many to be skipped completely.

But yes, if you want hands-on, practical advice on how to survive a zombie apocalypse, this is an excellent start. Just make sure to not recommend it to everyone else, or everyone will be headed for the same remote areas the second the dead rise, and you'll all be Belgians.

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beer good

Well-Known Member
Brooks does point out that hiding in large supermarkets or shopping malls is essentially suicide - those big windows are there to advertise the food inside, and to zombies, that's exactly what they do. And the odds of finding an abandoned shopping mall in the middle of a zombie apocalypse is close to nil; you'll end up crowded in there with thousands of desperate, panicking shoppers trying to get their hands on anything that can be used as a weapon - and that's before the zombies get there.
 

beer good

Well-Known Member
I'm sure there are decent Belgian beers. Funnily enough, almost every Belgian beer I've ever had seems to have been brewed to taste like anything but beer. Any country that puts fucking raspberries in their beer deserve zombies.
 

Sneezy

Well-Known Member
I am decidedly not a Lambic fan, with the one exception being the effect they seem to have on the fairer sex.

But other than that Belgian beer good.
 
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