"World War Z" - Mania.com

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  • Author: Max Brooks
  • Publisher: Crown
  • Pages: 342
  • Suggested Retail: $24.95

"World War Z"

An Oral History of the Zombie War

By Brian Thomas     November 09, 2006

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
© Crown

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.


Showing items 1 - 8 of 8
gregcox 11/9/2006 9:39:29 AM
I hear that WORLD WAR Z is an excellent book, but you're mistaken when you write that the modern zombie genre has no literary touchstone. George Romero has admitted on several occasions that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is an unauthorized adaptation of the novel, I AM LEGEND by Richard Matheson. Although Matheson never uses the word "zombie" in his book, I AM LEGEND is very clearly the forerunner of the entire walking-dead-overrun-the-Earth genre.
sharpe95th 11/9/2006 1:53:51 PM
The one thing "Z lit" (great coinage) offers is the creepiness and atmosphere a post-apoc zombie infested world can offer. Brian Keene's "The Rising" and "City of the Dead" offered a contemporary world gone upside down with all the squelch of zombies shuffling by--dunno yet about the talking zombies though. And King's "The Cell" just got King-sly with some dream sequences and main "zombie" leader in hooded sweats. BUT the creepiness is what intrigued me. "The Living Dead" comic series is an excellent illustration of zompie post-apoc world. But looking forward to reading the World War Z yet dreading a film adaptation already in an otherwsie oversaturated--sometimes straight to DVD--zombie film genre. I mean, Nick Cannon in the remake of "Day of.."? They should have gotten Lindsey Lohan to play "Bub" in this reimagining if they were going to mainstream zombie flicks...
gamera23 11/9/2006 8:56:15 PM
It may have been one of the sources of inspiration for NIGHT, but it is specifically a vampire plague novel - vampires who can talk, organize and plot against the monster ravaging their new society. _BT
SlamShut 11/10/2006 7:30:17 AM
Interesting article. I'm not familiar with Brooks' work, but this review has prompted me to add it to the 'grab it at the bookstore' list. One of the most thought-provoking points here, as touched upon by the other comments above mine, is the absence of an inarguable literary tentpole for zombie literature, and this absence is what should excite the reader more than anything else. Those who've read Stephen King's rather excellent (and still relevant) treatise on horror film and fiction, "Danse Macabre," know that he very deftly outlines the real archetypes within the genre: the vampire, the werewolf, the ghost, etc., etc., and makes a convincing argument that the majority of genre efforts for the last 40 years or so dovetail neatly into one of these categories. And that touches upon what's so frustrating about browsing the racks at any bookstore generous enough to feature a horror section: it all begins to seem like the same thing, over and over. How many times can one person read a vampire novel, and be captivated by the idea of a sexually threatening lifedrinker? But the plague-zombie, as defined by Romero and his film antecedents, and popularized by the wealth of zombie material in the last several years, is arguably a new concept, and one which has yet to be explored adequately. To me, it's interesting to consider the tremendous popularity of the zombie as a product of the post-911 zeitgeist: in the age where terrorism has become our culture's biggest bogeyman, we've see it manifested in our horror film and fiction in two aspects so far: first, in the form of mainstream torture-horror films, such as "Hostel" and the "Saw" series, and secondly, in the form of the plague-zombie, which is really the product of 'what would happen if the bad guys finally let one of those bugs out of the can in a big city.' Just as the slasher films of the 80s were a product of our nation's fears at finally stepping away from the traditional sexual and social politics of the 1950s and 1960s (ever notice that the kids getting killed are the bad ones, who screw and take drugs?), these torture and disease movies are popular because they address what really freaks us out these days. And it seems that Brooks is maybe the first guy to step up to the plate and take a swing or two at the plague zombie in text, and really crack one out of the park. I'm gonna have to check his stuff out-- I've had the 'Zombie Survival Guide' in my hand at the bookstore before, but always put it back, figuring it was little more than a cheapie gimmick book. Thanks for the review, Brian-- you've made me want to go back and take a closer look.
phillipej 11/10/2006 3:34:52 PM
Zombie Survival Guide was brilliant. Admittedly, I'm an avowed fan of Romero and Fulci. I haven't read World War Z yet, but am looking forward to it.
gamera23 11/14/2006 12:14:24 PM
It sounds like Romero is going for the same kind of verite feel with DIARY OF THE DEAD - which is only fitting, since he used it so well with the TV news reports in NIGHT. _BT
Nosferatu 11/14/2006 7:01:35 PM
I think this current wave of zombie literature was kicked off Brian Keene. I can't wait to check out Brooks' book, though!
kahlan 12/9/2006 12:41:20 PM
Read it. Read it. Read it. Just fantastic, and well worth your time. The realistic writing style makes you worry that it could really happen. I just put it down a few weeks ago, and I'm already thinking about rereading it.


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Realism that gnaws at your senses

by sharpe95th
Grade: A
Just read the book in one weekend--bought it Friday and closed it Sunday...