Nov 20, 2006

World War Z by Max Brooks - thoughts

To use an intentional pun, the living dead have had quite the resurrection of late. Starting with the glut of zombie films over the past few years, the undead are now making significant inroads into the realm of the printed word.

From the bloodstained pulp sensibilities of Brian Keene’s The Rising and David Wellington’s Monster Island, to Stephen King’s diverting (if lightweight) attempt to update the zombie image in Cell, it appears the shambling corpses have become the literary monster du jour.

And no one takes the dangers of their resurgence more seriously than Max Brooks.

Brooks (son of comedian Mel) takes an unusual slant in his zombie epic World War Z. Where other authors emulate the traditional plot of a group of individuals trapped within a confined space with the undead moaning just outside, Brooks instead fashions a frighteningly credible representation of how a zombie apocalypse would be greeted by the governments of the world.

World War Z is organized as a series of oral testimonials, presenting an alternative history where “the greatest conflict in human history” has already taken place. Billions of people have perished, the vast majority of the victims transformed into zombies themselves, and the survivors are only now coming to grips with the terrible after-effects.

Tracing the route of the virus from “Patient Zero” onward, the various narrators lay out how humanity reacted. From profiteers who seize the opportunity to market a placebo cure, to government officials who ignore the crisis because of “the damage it would have done to that administration’s political capital,” to soldiers facing an enemy who “will, never, ever be afraid,” World War Z presents a deeply bleak view of humanity caught with its collective pants down.

As monsters go, zombies are among the least interesting, personality-wise, being mindless hunks of flesh that only exist to kill, resulting in movies that are conventionally bleak and humourless. Consequently, as George Romero’s gore-soaked classic Dawn of the Dead shows, tales of zombie madness resonate best as a form of social commentary.

Accordingly, there is no shortage of parallels between Brooks’ bloody battlefields and our continuing obsessions with pandemics, terrorism, religious fundamentalism, and environmental catastrophe. The analogies are not subtle, but when you’re dealing with creatures that devour human brains, subtlety is always going to be in short supply.

Yet the originality of Brooks’ conceit is also its weakness. The constantly-shifting viewpoints tell the story well enough, but prevent the plot from building any real momentum.

The work as a whole keeps the audience at arms length, becoming almost as dispassionate as its antagonists. While many narrations are superbly effective—an episode with the anti-zombie canine corps may be the most moving use of a dog in a horror novel since Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend—the overall impact is muted.

Brooks should earn kudos for a serious and thought-provoking take on world politics in the face of “an enemy that was actively waging total war,” but all his research amounts to little in a horror novel with few scares. World War Z has the gore, and admirable intentions, but as horror, it rarely captures the visceral savagery of its predecessors.

Originally printed in expurgated form in The Winnipeg Free Press, November 20, 2006.

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