Book Review: World War Z by Max Brooks


The Zombie War came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Max Brooks, driven by the urgency of preserving the acid-etched first-hand experiences of the survivors from those apocalyptic years, traveled across the United States of America and throughout the world, from decimated cities that once teemed with upwards of thirty million souls to the most remote and inhospitable areas of the planet. He recorded the testimony of men, women, and sometimes children who came face-to-face with the living, or at least the undead, hell of that dreadful time. “World War Z” is the result. Never before have we had access to a document that so powerfully conveys the depth of fear and horror, and also the ineradicable spirit of resistance, that gripped human society through the plague years.

Ranging from the now infamous village of New Dachang in the United Federation of China, where the epidemiological trail began with the twelve-year-old Patient Zero, to the unnamed northern forests where untold numbers sought a terrible and temporary refuge in the cold, to the United States of Southern Africa, where the Redeker Plan provided hope for humanity at an unspeakable price, to the west-of-the-Rockies redoubt where the North American tide finally started to turn, this invaluable chronicle reflects the full scope and duration of the Zombie War.

Most of all, the book captures with haunting immediacy the human dimension of this epochal event. Facing the often raw and vivid nature of these personal accounts requires a degree of courage on the part of the reader, but the effort is invaluable because, as Mr. Brooks says in his introduction, “By excluding the human factor, aren’t we risking the kind of personal detachment from history that may, heaven forbid, lead us one day to repeat it? And in the end, isn’t the human factor the only true difference between us and the enemy we now refer to as ‘the living dead’?”

First things first:

  1. This book is brilliant; and
  2. This book has very little to do with the movie it inspired.

I was finally drawn to World War Z (the book) after watching World War Z (the movie) last week. The book version of WWZ has been on my shelf for at least 7 or 8 years. It’s not that I regretted buying it or wasn’t interested — I just never was in the right mood to actually tackle it.

Well, this week, the mood was finally right… and all I can say is holy f*cking wow.

Max Brooks has created an “oral history of the Zombie War”, a riff on the Studs Terkel masterpiece The Good War. In WWZ, Brooks creates an utterly plausible history of a world-devastating war that came close to the annilihation of the human race. The book is told through interviews, a series of conversations with people from around the globe who, in one way or another, witnessed or experienced some small piece of the global catastrophe.

From first warnings through the “Great Panic” through all-out war and finally recovery, we hear tales from those who lived through it all. We hear from medical personnel and soldiers, politicians and scientists, bystanders and those in power, and each has a unique voice and a unique perspective.

Why do I consider this a brilliant book? If you leave aside the gruesome fact that we’re talking about a zombie apocalypse, World War Z could be a chronicle of any world war. Brooks does an incredible job of building the history brick by brick through his interviews, so that we don’t need any historical notes or side narratives in order to gain a full picture of the war’s progression. The author lets us see the experience as it unfolded for people living through the nightmare days, as well as through the lens of the statescraft and diplomacy that came into play between world leaders and other power brokers.

It’s fascinating to see the effect on both common people and the greater picture of the worldwide balance of power. Nations rise and fall as a result of the steps taken or ignored, and the world that remains by the end of the war is far different than the one that came before.

Of course, on top of the amazing lesson in political science… ZOMBIES. There are some truly gross, horrifying, nightmarish scenarios that play out throughout the book. Like, who ever thought that zombies could survive indefinitely under water? There’s a reason never to go scuba diving again (not that I’ve ever gone scuba diving). Or how about the fact that in the colder regions of the planet, zombies would freeze during the winter — but that spring thaw could be a real bitch.

I love that World War Z reads like a completely immersive non-fiction record, even though it is of course fictional. The author fully commits to the premise — no wink-wink snarkiness or sarcasm to remind us that this “history” never happened. It’s really an incredible reading experience, one I’d be tempted to recommend even to those who don’t typically enjoy horror. Yes, there’s plenty of ickiness, but the reflection of heroism and sacrifice is like looking at the best of the human spirit and how it rises to the top in times of true need.

A word on the movie: I didn’t think the movie version was bad (hello? Brad Pitt!), just really different. It’s a straight-narrative story of a zombie uprising, seen through the eyes of one man who is dispatched around the globe to try to fight it. Some scenes are really nightmare-inducing (I am not going to get the image of zombies swarming over the walls of Jerusalem out of my mind any time soon), but as a whole, it doesn’t have the grand scope of the book. Also, the ending may work as a movie dramatic climax, but (being vague here) the solution that Pitt’s character finds isn’t in the book at all.

Long story short: This book was first published 10 years ago, but I don’t think it has lost any of its impact. It’s really a remarkable storytelling achievement, and I urge anyone with a taste for this sort of thing to give it a try.


The details:

Title: World War Z
Author: Max Brooks
Publisher: Crown
Publication date: September 12, 2006
Length: 342 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased





7 thoughts on “Book Review: World War Z by Max Brooks

  1. I’m so glad you finally read it! My work sometimes brings me in contact with the gathering of oral histories and ethnographies and this book was so surprisingly good and true on that score. Really superb.

  2. I loved this book – I don’t actually mind the film either, but it’s a completely different beast. I did wonder how they’d bring the book to screen, so when I saw it my response was pretty much ‘heh, they didn’t’. It’s such a disjointed film too, although I do love that final act. It’s a shoe-in for a reread and a rewatch next year for my Book Was Better series 🙂

    • Book Was Better sounds like fun. 🙂 I did like the way they “solved” the problem in the movie, but of course I thought the book was much better. I guess movies need neater wrap-ups so people can leave the theater feeling like the world is still okay.

      • I think it’s exactly that – movies just don’t lend themselves well to ambiguity or ‘and it all finished sorting itself out after the credits. No, we’re not doing a sequel’ endings. Well, I say movies – whether it’s the audiences or the producers is anyone’s guess!

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