Thursday, October 7, 2010


World War Z is so grand in scale it boggles the mind. Max Brooks did his homework, did his research, and it makes for a compelling read and a truly impressive work.

In the Acknowledgements Brooks thanks George A. Romero, director of the masterpiece zombie trilogy of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead (and other zombie movies in that same continuum). Romero’s influences are numerous in this book. The giant one is the assumption that zombies, slow moving unthinking zombies would be able to overrun all of society and effectively rule the planet pushing humans into pockets of survivors and clinging day by day counting supplies and praying for a miracle. I don’t share this notion, but I am going to put that aside for the sake of the book.

As I said in the opening, the book is impressive. It does what no other zombie tale has ever done. It has gone epic. Yes, every zombie story allows the undead to overrun the entire planet. In that sense they are all epic in scale. But the central focus of the tale is always a small band of survivors holed up in a farm house or a mall or a bunker while all around them legions of the moaning undead wander mindlessly waiting to get at them and feed.

World War Z goes beyond that. Its narrative scope is literally the globe. All the continents are featured, and all manner of character are brought into the narrative. There are soldiers (of course), but there are also politicians, doctors, filmmakers, scientists, divers, blind gardeners, and others. All of them share their side of the war, their story. The shared identity of hatred for the zombies and a collective moving through the stages of the event from Warnings, to The Great Panic, and finally to Total War and Good-Byes is compelling and believable.

Brooks knows the pressure points to hit in a reader. The section on the K-9 units being invaluable scouts, decoys, and bait in the war with the zombies was gripping. The tale of the downed C-130 pilot being guided back to safety by what probably amounts to a voice in her head. The blind Japanese gardener who survives in the forest with nothing but his wits and a sharpened shovel also brings the story from satellite level point of view down to a very personal narrative.

I’ve neglected up to this point to go into the zombies in depth so far. As with the better zombie stories Brooks is never exactly specific with what starts the undead rising. Patient Zero, or the first known zombie, is a boy in China and the book is written to imply that the infected undead originate in China. The zombies themselves are pretty standard issue. They are old-school slow movers, and they can only be killed by destroying the brain.

Brooks adds in a couple of very nice touches. First, the signature moan of the zombies is turned into a calling signal, like the howl of a wolf or the chirp of a cricket. It implies the zombies have some level of communication, albeit rudimentary and simplistic. The other Brooks addition to the zombie canon is having them survive and thrive under the water. This was an element I found particularly horrifying. The idea that there are still 20 to 30 million zombies roaming the sea bed, still hungry is freak-out inducing. It takes the scare of Jaws and the water being unsafe and turns it up about, well, 20 million times.

Another perfectly executed detail was the little things. The battle at Yonkers, NY contrasted with the later battle at Hope, NM. The army makes a big show in Yonkers using standard operating procedures for fighting other armies, other ground forces. They are being showy for the cameras and the general public. The tactics are nearly useless against the zombies and they get creamed.

Later in Hope, NM the army has learned, adapted and returns to its efficient lethality. They have in many ways regressed to a simpler army designed to take on individual zombies versus fortifications and vehicles.

If I have one beef with the book, it is the ambiguity with the timeline and the extreme length of time it takes for people to learn to engage the zombies intelligently. Brooks, in the Total War section lists off the tactical advantages the zombies have: they slay a human it adds to the zombie horde effectively doubling their advantage as it weakens the humans while strengthening the zomies, they don’t need to be fed as that is all they exist to do (eat), and they have no need for leaders. They also have no supply lines, no political philosophy to negotiate with; no level of diplomacy will work. They are as single minded as an enemy has ever been.

What Brooks fails to do, however, is show that this single mindedness, this idiocy on the part of the zombies is also a huge liability. Displaying one live human, heck just making a bunch of noise, and you draw them in. Once they are massed any number of things can be done to take them out, and in large numbers. Brooks refers to lemming operations inducing zombies to literally walk off of tall buildings to their death.

Yes, the sheer numbers are a factor, but Brooks hints at massive herds of them stretching across the Midwest like the buffalo used to. The battle at Yonkers was the front end of a group of millions moving out of New York City. Especially in the early going, when fuel and supplies were plentiful, having an easy target like that it is hard to believe it would take years of preparation to return and fight intelligently.

As stated above, the timeline is a bit fuzzy as well. The conflict goes through several cycles of winter as the freezing and thawing of the zombies is referred to in several areas. With the interview style of the book it would have been easy to include times and dates to go along with the names and locations of the interviewees. It would have given the story even more of a documentary feel.

Finally, though, I have to recommend this book. The style can be seen as less tension filled as it is obvious the interviewer and all the interviewees have survived World War Z (or they wouldn’t be available to hold or give interviews). However, this method works wonderfully for the shell-shocked grim ruminations of almost everyone. Ultimately what Brooks has done is to take the zombie from low budget small group attacks, the farm leagues of the horror genre, and put him up there as viable global destructor. The zombie has been called up to the majors with this book. That level of upgrade all while maintaining huge levels of detail and capturing various voices, regional quirks, and even maintaining a bit of humor (dark as it may be) is great stuff.


  1. Great post, Dave. I wish I had enjoyed WWZ as much as you did.

    I wasn't crazy about Brooks's writing, approach, or characters, wanted more zombies, and had an especially difficult time with the logical problems. You mention the fuzzy time line and how long it takes the military to adjust. These points bothered me, too, but I also bothered by many other points, including some that worked for you, like the tens of millions of zombies in the oceans, the Battle of Yonkers, and the fact that Brooks never explains the cause of it all. Good zombie stories don't need an explanation, but considering the distant, epic, and reflective nature of WWZ, Brooks should have provided one.

    I'm in the decided minority here. WWZ is a popular book, and you make a solid case for it here. As a fan of zombies, sci fi that forces you to suspend disbelief, and great stylists and storytellers like King, McCarthy, and Leonard, I was probably doomed not to like this book. Oh well.

  2. I'm with you, David. For me, it was the epic nature of this book that made it such a great read.

    As I will opine in my own post shortly, this book was the zombie-genre equivalent of Heart of Darkness, one of my favorite novels of all time. It was grand in scale and the subject matter was gripping and moving. Halfway through it, I just thought to myself "Wow" and I never lost that awed feeling of reading/having read something truly spectacular in scope and execution.

    Yes, I agree, I'd recommend it too. In fact, I'll be passing it along to my almost 13 year old tomorrow.

  3. I agree with the epic idea of the book and that Brooks did a lot of homework for this. However, I feel that there was just too much for a novel of this size. In my blog post I talk about marketing and having this a s a trilogy. Still, I can't argue that he did a great job with this one.


  4. As always, a stellar post, Mr. Johnston. Well done.

  5. You make two excellent points in here. First, despite the fact that Brooks put a ton of work into his research and into developing this story, he does fail to show the single-mindedness of the zombies. Or at least, he doesn't show it as well as he could. Two, the time line is more than a bit fuzzy, which seems kind of like a mistake since it would have been easy to clarify via the interviews. These two things did bother me, but I can't help but agree that this was an enjoyable read.