Since most of my childhood was lived in the 1970s, it took me a long time to believe that a zombie narrative could be anything but B-grade camp. And unless it is deliberate and terribly smart camp, like anything done by Joss Whedon, I’m not interested. At all.
This is why no one was more surprised than me to find myself on the postapocalyptic zombie bandwagon. Because unless you have been hiding in your basement preparing for the apocalypse yourself, you have noticed the proliferation of books, television shows, graphic novels, and movies based on the old horror conceit of people who die and then reanimate to feed on others. It is ancient comic book material come to new life in the twenty-first century, with perhaps even more strength than the vampire craze. While there are always those hip enough to declare that the genre is passé and “zombie fatigue” has set in, there is more evidence that the zombies actually will be getting stronger before they get weaker. I have already written a bit about my favorite series, AMC’s The Walking Dead. But lately I have admired a completely different iteration of zombie material in the work of Max Brooks. Called the “Studs Terkel of zombie journalism,” Brooks reached the bestseller list with The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which was recently made into a film starring Brad Pitt and Mereille Enos. The film, though a lot of fun, is a far cry from the book. Standing as an example of what a good writer can do with a tired genre, World War Z is the smartest zombie novel you’ll never read.
World War Z is not a blow-by-blow recounting of a zombie apocalypse. It is a collection of field reports told by survivors, men and women from all over the globe, ten years after the event takes place. Like any good postapocalyptic novel (such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) its mode is realism, and the zombies are just a device to get somewhere else. In this case, what readers get is a rare picture of how a global pandemic might actually operate in the post 9/11 world, a world that too often still operates under the illusion of safety. The novel reveals how a pandemic would displace traditional power centers and throw the world’s hierarchies on their heads. In such a scenario, money and industrial war machines are meaningless. What matters is experience, ingenuity, geographical advantage, and a whole lot of luck. To emphasize this new reality, the book starts in China, not the United States. It also starts in China because ten years after the apocalypse, Lhasa, Tibet is the largest city in the world.
Unfortunately, the novel’s strengths do not carry over to the film version. For while the book communicates the chaos of a world population disconnected from each other through its decentralized narrative (there is no plot, just a series of illustrations of individuals and communities trying to survive), the movie follows the actions of one American, Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt). Eventually, Lane uses his ingenuity to work with health professionals in Cardiff to come up with a way to hide from the zombies, attack them, and save the world. That does not happen in the book. The only place of real crossover between the book and the film is in depicting Israel’s response to the crisis. Israel saves a large proportion of its population (in addition to countless refugees from other countries) by building a high wall around Tel Aviv before the contagion spreads to them. Jurgen Warmbrunn, an Israeli intelligence operative, reveals how they managed to be so prescient. In 1973, Israeli intelligence missed all the warning signs of the Arab sneak attack in the Yom Kippur War. “We had simply ‘dropped the ball,’” Warmbrunn reports. “We never considered the possibility of an all-out, coordinated, conventional assault from several nations, certainly not on our holiest of holidays. Call it stagnation, call it rigidity, call it an unforgivable herd mentality” (34). Israel learns from this mistake and implements a minority report protocol. Since 1973, Warmbrunn explains, if nine intelligence experts came to a certain conclusion, it became “the duty of the tenth to disagree,” to dig deeper, to make sure their intelligence is not misleading them. Brooks does an excellent job of predicting how early news reports of an attack from zombies would be received by most nations—by disbelief and a system of rationalizing with plausible explanations. Israel’s minority report system eventually saves them, as Warmbrunn digs and digs until he recognizes that the threat is real. He writes a report and circulates it through the UN to the rest of the world. While most nations ignore the report, Israel’s government decides to build the wall, and they welcome anyone into Tel Aviv as long as they can prove they are not infected. The zombie invasion thus restructures Israeli-Palestinian relations like nothing else could. A Palestinian confesses that, “I realized I practically didn’t know anything about these people I’d hated my entire life. Everything I thought was true went up in smoke that day, supplanted by the face of our real enemy” (44). While the movie does tell part of this story, it moves the wall to Jerusalem, where it eventually fails as the zombies pile up on one another and climb into the city, another lame Hollywood capitulation to the need for an ingenious American to come in and save the day.
The book highlights a number of interesting global displacements not depicted in the film. Notably, Cuba becomes the strategic center of the war against the zombies and an ironic reverse refugee situation ensues. Thousands of Americans sail to Cuba on homemade rafts. They are initially put into a “Quarantine Resettlement Program” and put to work as field hands, at least until Cuban officials cannot keep up with controlling them. Eventually, Cuba becomes the “Arsenal of Victory” against the zombie invasion, serving as the air and sea hub for both North and South America. Brooks excels in describing several other realistic scenarios: Russia decimates an army it can no longer control because of panic, and the US army eventually learns to adapt its weaponry, but only after substantial setbacks. Many nations turn to the Redeker plan, a plan developed by a crazy South African that isolates pockets of human beings to use as zombie bait in order to protect its main civilization. Brooks has a good feel for what global panic might induce desperate nations to do.
World War Z’s strengths reveal the interest that can be generated when the zombie genre gets converted from its usual realm of horror into a realm of terror. Though these terms are often used interchangeably, they are very different. Horror is more immediate; it is what you feel when you are with Brad Pitt’s family in their car in Philadelphia when zombies are jumping out of nowhere into the windshield. Terror is deeper; it is what you feel when you hear reports you are not sure are accurate and panic sets in. Panic is the real enemy in any pandemic, and here Brooks makes it clear that panic is a result, at least in part, of pre-war hubris. Part of that hubris is the conviction that modern technological society has conquered Mother Nature completely and that she now serves the elite. But the zombie infection has no respect for the elite; it spreads very quickly through the international organ trade, when illegally-operating doctors unwittingly transplanted infected organs into wealthy Western clientele. When the narrator of World War Z asks one of these doctors why more questions weren’t asked, he responds that “these were the very early stages, when nobody knew anything yet. Even if they did know, like elements in the Chinese army... you want to talk about immoral... Years before the outbreak they’d been making millions on organs from executed political prisoners. You think something like a little virus is going to make them stop sucking that golden tit?” (27). This attitude is not fictional. It is a part of the current real-world organ trade, and it is truly terrifying. Furthermore, in spite of our modern technological hubris, we do get periodic reminders of the fragility of world health in the form of SARS, H1N1, the avian flu, and so on. It was not so long ago, after all, that up to 5 percent of the population of the world was killed by the Spanish flu. World War Z illustrates how much our technological prowess exposes us to new threats as much as it protects us from old ones.
Brooks’s sociological insights are reason enough to read the book. I love the idea that many American teenagers might be tricked into reading globally-sensitive speculative sociology. But I believe that Brooks also taps into the main reason why postapocalyptic narratives are all the rage today among advanced technological societies. Americans live in an increasingly simulated world, where technology aggressively separates us from hard realities, especially the reality of death. The more layers of simulacra that separate us from the real, the more we crave the real—and, arguably, the more we fear it. Postapocalyptic narratives allow us to safely walk that edge, to imagine what it might be like to be challenged by something greater than the question, “what’s for lunch?” Another way to put this is to note that, generally speaking, no one who lives daily with gritty circumstances of actual death wants or needs to read about it for entertainment. Brooks trades on this appeal in several ways in World War Z. One way is through the account of T. Sean Collins, a Texan who the narrator finds in Barbados. Collins was one of the bodyguards hired by a company formed to provide a supposedly safe seaside enclave for the rich and famous. Collins reports that these celebrities initially sat back and watched the zombie war as if watching a reality television show. But after videos of them watching this footage circulate online, they soon find out that their sense of security is false. Another way Brooks highlights this challenge to simulacra is through the character of Joe Muhammed, a Pakistani American whose parents had settled in Washington state before the war. “They never talked to their American neighbors, never invited them over, barely knew their names unless it was to complain about loud music or a barking dog. Can’t say that’s the kind of world we live in now” (336). While nobody believes that a zombie apocalypse will actually happen, the appeal of an ultimate challenge to our decadent suburban isolation is real.
Sadly, although Brooks knows that religious concerns will be revved up when the world is in crisis, he does not explore any positive options. Belief instead becomes either a province of opportunistic shysters who sell hope or a way for communities to try to handle pragmatic problems. The first response happens in America, where Breckinridge “Breck” Scott invents a drug called Phalanx, a false cure for the “African rabies.” Phalanx sales escalate quickly because desperate people will pay anything to buy hope. The advertisements tell the whole story: “Piece of Phalanx, Peace of Mind” (66). Many people never let go of the thin strands of evidence of its efficacy and pay with their lives. Another example of a religious response comes from Siberia, where a former priest develops the strategy of “Final Purification.” This idea—a way to save infected people from having to commit suicide by “releasing trapped souls from infected bodies”—becomes the “first step in a religious fervor that would surpass even the Iranian revolution of the 1980s” (297). Both are very believable responses to a pandemic of these proportions.
As much as I wanted to see Brooks explore other potential faith responses to such an event, he at least consistently emphasizes that one of the reasons why the pandemic spreads so quickly is a failure among the vast majority of people to believe in anything outside the box. World War Z can thus be an interesting starting point for conversations. Why is it so easy for a post-industrial society to hold an illusion of ultimate control? What are the real dangers of such an illusion? What other beliefs do we allow to remain unchallenged? These are questions worth asking. That Max Brooks is interested in sparking such a dialogue became clear to me when I was reading a recent edition of the Atlantic Monthly. In its “The Big Question” section, the magazine asked twelve well-known people, “How and when will the world end?” My favorite answer was from Aubrey Plaza, an actress on the television show Parks and Recreation: “Tomorrow, a giant asteroid will wipe us all out mid-text. Or not. But maybe we should all throw our phones away just in case.” Brooks’s answer was equally profound, if you take a moment to contemplate it. He said: “Earbuds. We’ll have our own specifically chosen world at our own comfortably blaring volume, and we’ll never hear what’s creeping up behind us.”
Christina Bieber Lake is the Clyde S. Kilby Professor of English at Wheaton College. She is the author of Prophets of the Posthuman: American Fiction, Biotechnology, and the Ethics of Personhood (Notre Dame, 2013).