World War Z
by Max Brooks

Duckworth, 2006, 12.99, 344pp
ISBN 0-7156-3596-4

This review first appeared on Sci-Fi London
God bless George A. Romero – zombies in horror would be pretty much dead and buried (permanently) without him, popping up only occasionally, creepily, in stories of voodoo or witchcraft.  Instead, following his inspired reimagining of the entire genre zombie horror is a pretty vibrant and terrifying corner of the genre: Kirkman’s The Walking Dead series at Image Comics is doing well, and there are various other excellent zombie comics out there, not least Marvel ZombiesShaun Of The Dead and the remake of Dawn Of The Dead were big hits (Night Of The Living Dorks slightly less so, but it’s still worth a look), and this latest book by Max Brooks, not coincidentally the author of The Zombie Survival Guide, is an entirely worthy addition to the burgeoning zombie canon.

Subtitled ‘An Oral History Of The Zombie War’ World War Z does exactly what it says on the tin – collecting oral testimony from those who managed to survive the global outbreak of zombies, the devastating plague that came perilously close to wiping out all mankind.  Brooks’ unobtrusive questioning of people from all walks of life, all over the world, gives us an overview of the entire outbreak from its unexplained beginnings in China, through the growing panic, the origin of the ruthless – but vital – Redeker Plan, that disastrous US Army counter-attack at Yonkers, then the seemingly unstoppable hordes of undead overrunning the entire planet…and afterwards.

Like Romero, Brooks treats his subject absolutely seriously, even as many of his characters are initially unable to, and the book’s central conceit: that this is not a novel but a book of collected testimony, ‘lest we forget’, works much better than one might have expected.  Each section is seldom more than 4-5 pages long, so we never get bogged down in unnecessary detail – quite the opposite, this is a fast moving machine gun of a book, each chapter a burst of nightmarish detail.  Brooks cleverly uses the format to weave street-level encounters with the undead in amongst a global perspective so that we get the best of both worlds – a dispassionate outline of the collapse of civilisation, and the terror of face-to-face encounters with decaying hordes of the undead.

There’s a real creeping sense of panic and horror throughout: anyone who picks up a book about a zombie war surely already know exactly what’s coming, but Brooks’ writing - well-researched, entirely believable and perfectly pitched – hits the right note every single time.  He seems to have thought through each angle with a surprising degree of rigour: from the behaviour and potential of his zombies, to the responses of different countries – I frequently found myself thinking, ‘Blimey, yeah, of course that would happen!’ - and shivering.

As with Romero, there’s some fairly harsh political commentary underlying some of the stories, but it’s not blatantly partisan or too obtrusive; and even if you disagree with Brooks’s characters apportioning of blame then there are enough inspiring and heroic moments to balance out what we see of humanity’s spiteful underbelly.  In fact, I came close to punching the air a couple of times towards the end of World War Z, and biting my lip whilst reading some of the tales of quiet heroism.

I didn’t discover until after I’d finished reading World War Z that Max Brooks is actually the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft - not that it makes any difference, because this gripping, intelligent and very human book stands completely on its own merits.  If you’re a zombie fan then, believe me, you need this book.  Even if you think the only brains in a Romero movie are those visible onscreen then you’ll still appreciate and be moved by this fantastic book.
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