An oral history of the Zombie Apocalypse

Daniel Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies predicted that a zombie outbreak, as devastating as it would be, probably would not mean total annihilation for the human race. “The public benefits of wiping the undead from the face of the earth are quite significant, boosting the likelihood of significant policy coordination,” he said. Nonetheless, the zombie canon is “quick to get to the apocalypse,” he noted.

So, what would that apocalypse look like? How might it play out on a global scale?

While writers have offered plenty of horrifying visions, fewer have offered a more comprehensive look than Max Brooks in his thriller World War Z, which is as infectious as the zombie plague he writes about.

In other words, once you pick it up, there’s no turning back. It’s nearly impossible to stop. And six years after it was first published—six years after I first read it—the book still sticks me like a creeping nightmare that’s both terrifying yet somehow still delicious.

Brooks takes what could easily be a B-movie premise and elevates it to A-list material. In the not-too-distant future, a mysterious outbreak of zombies in China quickly spreads across the globe, driving humanity to the brink of extinction (the communist government’s insistence on secrecy, and its public denials about its own problems, allows the infection to escalate out of control).

There’s nothing supernatural about the undead swarms; instead, zombification is caused by a viral infection that spreads faster and easier than the common cold in an elementary school. (This keeps in line with current science-based theories about the modern zombie.) We never find out exactly how the outbreak starts, but that’s not important. Instead, Brooks’ story traces the spread of the plague and mankind’s reaction to it.

The twist that makes the overall narrative so compelling, though, is that the story is told as a collection of oral histories from people who survived the war. The United Nations, compiling its first comprehensive report in the wake of the Zombie War, has sent a researcher out to conduct the interviews. The researcher adds only enough notations to explain who each interviewee is, allowing the first-person accounts to take center stage. In all, there are over one hundred, each offering a unique perspective on the overall war and each filling in an important plot point in the big-picture story of the rise and fall of the zombie apocalypse.

The characters speak with distinct voices, from individual perspectives, and out of individual experiences. It’s a testament to Brooks’ writing that the characters never get stale or repetitive.

And with each new interviewee comes a new surprise, a new way of not only looking at the world within the book but also our own world. Brooks shows a subtle yet expansive intelligence that peels the world back one onion-like layer after another, taking us to new and unexpected places. Each time he does, he offers readers another “of course” moment: “Of course that would’ve happened. Why didn’t I think of that?”

Brooks, it seems, thinks of everything. In fact, his 2003 Zombie Survival Guide was cited by some critics as being too comprehensive, although it’s since become one of the gold-star standards of the zombie canon. World War Z describes a myriad of possibilities and scenarios, each of them intelligent and fresh (well, as fresh as an undead ghoul can be, anyway).

For being a book about flesh-eating zombies, the book never sinks into gratuitous graphic violence even while still offering some legitimately scary passages. The true horror of the book, though, lurks just below the surface: Without ever getting preachy, Brooks continually slips ethical and philosophical issues into his story that resonate loudly in our own world.

It would be easy to dismiss World War Z as another schlocky horror novel, but don’t let the undead fool you. This wildly inventive book is lively reading.

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  1. Also, in the same vein as “World War Z,” I cannot recommend this movie highly enough: “American Zombie.” It’s like a Christopher Guest “mockumentary,” but ten times more creative. Available on Netflix Instant.