Most of our classic movie monsters were drawn from some literary touchstone. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein pretty much created both the horror and science fiction genres as soon as it was published. Dracula is the undisputed king of vampire novels. And even the folklore of werewolves was run through the filter of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” on its way to the theater screen. Not so the formerly humble zombie. I’m not talking about your old fashioned voodoo derived Haitian zombies, created and enslaved by man. I’m talking about the living dead cannibal ghouls of Night of the Living Dead and its descendants. George Romero took an idea that had been percolating in B-movies like Zombies of Mora Tau, Plague of the Zombies and Invisible Invaders, increased the shock quotient, and made it distinctly his own. If Romero had been a bit sharper about trademarking his debut effort, he would’ve been a very rich man, but then we wouldn’t have had the avalanche of zombie flicks that is still piling up today. And we certainly wouldn’t have the late blooming subgenre of zombie literature.
Of course, stories of walking corpses have always been around in horror fiction. But the Romeroesque living dead ghoul was a creation of the movies, and true zombie fiction – let’s call it Z-Lit – is a fairly recent phenomenon that is just coming into its own. John Russo did a novelization of his Night of the Living Dead script, but it was pretty much just the movie transcribed to paper. It wasn’t until 1989’s Book of the Dead, an anthology of zombie stories edited by John Skipp and Craig Spector – along with its 1992 sequel - that writers began to really see the possibilities in the living dead concept. While the popularity of the zombie movie has exploded in the 21st century, writers of Z-Lit have easily surpassed the tumult of low budget offerings, and even the bigger budget projects like the Dawn of the Dead sequel and Romero’s own Land of the Dead. Unrestrained by budgets and schedules, writers are able to use as many “extras” as they want, and put in hundreds of decapitations without having to consult the special effects department. In Monster Island (and its recent sequel Monster Nation), David Wellington creates an epic in which the entire world is overrun by the living dead. Unfortunately, he’s unable to keep the twists coming without creating a sort of undead supervillain to mentally control the zombie hordes. That seems like a step back to the days of White Zombie, where Bela Lugosi tried to become an island despot using corpse slaves created by black magic. Wellington doesn’t drop to the level of Stephen King’s Cell, in which the “zombies” are living humans with their brains reprogrammed into a hive mind, but it feels like he’s cheating a bit. What’s needed is some sort of zombie rule book.
Fortunately, we have one. Max Brooks’ 2003 Zombie Survival Guide is often stacked in the humor section, and not just because he’s the son of the man who directed Young Frankenstein and a former writer for Saturday Night Live. Presenting a handbook to defending yourself should a zombie outbreak erupt in your neighborhood is a funny idea, even moreso because Brooks is dead serious in his treatment of the concept. Brooks doesn’t stick to Romero absolutely – his zombies are created by a spreading plague via infection, not a spontaneously generated phenomena – but at least they’re real re-animated rotting cannibals. It’s a clever spoof, but it’s also one of the best horror novels of the past decade. Toward the back of the book, Brooks gives an overview of zombie outbreaks throughout history, and delivers dozens of scenarios that would each make a great zombie movie. It’s here that he reveals the germ of the idea behind World War Z.
Z, which is subtitled An Oral History of the Zombie War, is modeled on firsthand case history collections like Studs Terkel’s The Good War. Using the format of a series of interviews collected by a United Nations field agent, it tells the story of a worldwide zombie outbreak in the near future from the vantage point of ten years after humankind reclaimed the planet. Like Zombie Survival Guide, the experiences recounted by eye witnesses would each make a great zombie movie – or at least an episode in a WWZ anthology TV series. We hear from a Chinese smuggler who helped refugees try to escape the plague (for a price); an entrepreneur who made a fortune in phony cures; a Russian priest who took on the duty of executing the infected; and soldiers who fought in every major battle of the war at every level. The level of research is as astounding as the level of speculation. Brooks gives us a solid picture of how the war affects world politics, technology, religion and the arts. He even gets in a joke now and then, notably one or two comments about the worth of his own “civilian guide”. The book may be a work of fiction, but it feels like the real thing, as if just such a history was sent back in time. Like any history whose outcome is already known to all, the plot twists can only be small and personal ones, but there are enough of them to carry the weight of a titanic struggle.
One hopes that the announced film version will stick to the mockumentary format, switching between the witnesses and newsreel style reenactments of their horrific adventures. Thanks to Brooks, the zombie genre now has its own touchstone literature. Is it too much to ask for a zombie movie to win the Best Picture Oscar?
Copyright © 2006 Brian Thomas, author of the massive book VideoHound's Dragon: Asian Action & Cult Flicks.