“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.