Thursday, September 11, 2008

World War Z: An oral history of the Zombie War (a review)

First off, let me apologize for not posting here for several weeks. My wife and I took a cruise and then I spent the past week trying to catch up at work. I'll try to be a bit more of a familiar face around here.

I love stuff with zombies, whether in comics, film or prose fiction. It probably goes back to my childhood, growing up reading FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, and the Warren titles CREEPY & EERIE. There were also a few old B&W ‘horror’ films, like WHITE ZOMBIE that I would watch over and over when they were broadcast late at night on “Chiller Theatre”. Of course, it took Romero’s original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to really make zombies cool. By the ‘80s you could rent the Italian films by the likes of Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava in glorious color on VHS in some of the non-chain video stores, at least in NYC.

I don’t recall hearing about this book previously, but happened to come across it at Borders a couple of weeks ago. I was looking for something a bit different from the suspense thrillers & mysteries I have been reading lately. The reviews and inside blurbs use the same thing to describe the contents of this book. “Studs Terkel meets George Romero.” I’m not clever enough to come up with something different, but personally I agree with them. None of that is a slam and in fact appears to sum up exactly the flavor (pardon the expression) that Brooks was trying to provide.

The novel (for that is what it is) is comprised of the author’s notes & transcripts from ‘interviews’ conducted with those who survived the period known as the “Zombie War” or “World War Z”. The unnamed writer formerly worked for the United Nations to compile their official report on the events. Now, almost a decade later he has been given approval in using notes and information gathered, but not utilized by the authorities. Told that his work was ‘too intimate’ for inclusion, the writer attempts to document how the plague came about, how people reacted and how things have stabilized over the past decade.

Those interviewed range from a Chinese doctor, who was one of the first to encounter the victims, to former bureaucrats, military personnel and a few “businessmen” who profited one way or the other from those trying to survive or simply escape. There are also a number of ‘just plain folks’ who through luck, skill, planning or a combination of all those actually found safety in those areas where the undead could not get to them.

Brooks introduces us to dozens of individuals all of whom have their own stories to tell. Some are heroes, a few are villains (though, of course, they don’t see themselves in that way) but most were people who found their normal existence suddenly torn apart literally and figuratively by things they could not understand. He gives them all a very real set of emotions and even in the short (sometimes only a page or two) chapters you can imagine these scenes in your mind.
One of the things that Brooks does and I think quite well, is that he uses this fictitious plague to poke a finger at a number of current political and social problems. References and thinly veiled jabs at real events, corporations and media personalities are easy to pick out. In a way, Brooks, does not take sides but shows just how some of these agencies and individuals might react in a situation where they were losing control.

Two things which came to mind while reading WWZ were similarities to both the original Living Dead trilogy and to Robert Kirkman’s WALKING DEAD comic series. Brooks does not rip off either but uses his skill as a writer to show the broader implications and consequences of what events, such as occur in the two other series, would have on a worldwide basis. How would culture, business and government react and how would they attempt to regain a measure of control?

If you enjoy this book you might also want to check out Brook’s companion book, The Zombie Survival Guide, which will help you prepare for anything that might go down in the future. Finally, if reading is too much of a hassle you can wait for a film version of the novel announced for 2010 release, unless something happens between now and then, of course!


alex-ness said...

Well said, and woo hoo for Zombies. I think Walking Dead is a great book, and while it occasionally strays it is well worth seeking out.

I now have a new book to seek out.
Thanks Steve!

Steve Chaput said...

It took me a while to pick up Walking Dead, but after reading the first TPB collection I was hooked.

I recommend #51 of WD, but only if you are already familiar with the backstory. It has a lengthy interview with Robert Kirkman about the book and what it means to him.

Derek Handley said...

Excellent review. I should really pick this book up, but I have one problem: zombie stories really give me the creeps. I can watch and read any amount of horror and science-fiction, but something about the zombie genre actually gets under my skin.

Alan Coil said...

Max Brooks is the son of Mel Brooks.

(Things I learned from actually listening to the radio.)

Steve Chaput said...

Wow! Thanks, Alan. I don't recall hearing this before.

As for Derek: Not much of the book is graphic, although it can be disturbing as the 'interviewees' describe the situations in which they found themselves. For me the most bothersome was to hear how heartless some of these folks were when given the choice between aiding someone and self-preservation.