World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

Reviewed by Siobhan Carroll

Read by a full cast. Random House Audio.

World War Z cover

There’s a scene near the beginning of British horror flick 28 Days Later in which the bewildered protagonist, newly awoken from a coma, sits in the back of a dirty van and listens to a complete stranger tell him about the end of the world. Despite what he’s been told about a plague that transforms regular humans into flesh-eating “infected,” the protagonist cannot believe the scope of the disaster he’s facing.

Then one of the survivors starts speaking of the plague on a personal level. He describes the day he and his family tried to flee the country. A group of infected attacked the dense crowd of refugees at the train station, spreading the deadly plague like wildfire. The stranger describes the horror of seeing normal people converted in a matter of minutes into a ravenous enemy; of losing his family members in the stampeding crowd; of climbing over bodies in a desperate bid for his own safety. Finally, and most horribly, he tells the protagonist of his last glimpse of his father’s face in the crowd, a face so distorted by fear or rage that he was unable to tell whether his father was still alive or already absorbed into the mass of “living dead.”

It’s a brilliant scene, made more horrific by the fact that the filmmakers don’t attempt to visualize any of the stranger’s flashbacks. Instead they turn the scene over to the actor, allowing him to convey the burnt-out agony of someone who has survived the unimaginable. Through him, both the protagonist and the audience start to understand something of the absolute terror that has overtaken the world outside.

Max Brooks’s World War Z
recaptures the intensity of this and other moments of second-hand horror in a compilation of oral histories narrated by survivors of a near-future zombie plague. Brooks plays his high concept straight, asking his audience whether, by “excluding the human factor” as the UN requested, he would be “risking the kind of personal detachment from history that may, heaven forbid, lead us one day to repeat it?” Rather than accept this possibility, he instead “record[s] 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.”

Instead of reviewing the text of World War Z, I went for the audio version. I confess to not being a particularly big fan of audiobooks, but with Halloween approaching and World War Z clearly one of the must-reads of the fall, I figured this six-hour reading by a diverse cast would be worth a listen. For the most part I was right: the oral history concept of the book is a natural match for the audio format. The story itself is gripping, and Brooks’s realistic frame provides listeners with an experience reminiscent of Orson Welles’s famous War of the Worlds performance.

World War Z begins from the point of view of a Chinese doctor witnessing the first cases of a plague that seems to inexplicably resurrect the newly deceased as infectious cannibals. Is the plague natural or supernatural in origin? Does it even matter? Within a year the world is overcome with hordes of ravenous undead. Americans flee to refugee camps in Cuba; Europeans turn to medieval castles and weapons for defense; a confused Pakistan unleashes nuclear winter on the world. And despite the best efforts of humankind, the zombies keep coming.

Like the best of the zombie movies (28 Days Later, Night of the Living Dead), World War Z provides gripping horror while being about more than just shambling corpses. From the Palestinian who at first believes the zombie plague to be a Zionist trick to the American soldier who blames Middle Eastern “brushfire wars” for America’s sluggish response to the zombie threat, this is a horror tale underpinned by contemporary geopolitical concerns. It’s a story that has something to say about the nature of historiography and the influence of the World Wars on our current notions of warfare and sacrifice. Brooks’s accomplished re-creation of “survivor voices” from a zombie plague, for example, intervenes in a larger contemporary debate over the blurred distinction between history and fiction in modern historiographical practice. When the authenticity of the historical record is made to rely exclusively on “voice” rather than evidence, little remains to distinguish real events like the Holocaust from those described in World War Z.

But in case that sounds too deep, I should note that World War Z is also about zombies. Underwater zombies! Legless zombies! Child zombies! The full gamut is here, on a scale that could never be realized on film. This is the movie George Romero will never get around to making because the budget is too large and Hollywood just not cool enough.

At its best, World War Z is both gripping and moving. The most effective narratives in the book are those that serve as self-contained short stories: a Chinese doctor’s wartime experience saves his life during the initial outbreak; a downed pilot treks to safety through enemy territory; a young girl and her family flee north in the hope that winter will freeze the undead in their tracks. Brooks’s writing shines in these sections, which combine jolting action and social commentary and frequently end with a bittersweet, ironic twist.

However, there are also moments at which World War Z’s plot bogs down in descriptions of fictional policy changes. Brooks is clearly very interested in the ways that communities constitute themselves through idealism as well as law, and his section describing the American government’s attempts to rebuild the nation on the West Coast is reminiscent of postapocalyptic nation-building novels like David Brin’s The Postman. Unfortunately, bureaucracy is dull at the best of times; listening to the detailed policies of fictional bureaucracies tends to be more so. These sections might go quicker in text form, but when read aloud they only highlight the pacing differences between the “home front” sections and the plentiful zombie action found elsewhere.

The actors do what they can with these tonal shifts. Standout vocal performances include Eamonn Walker as an apologist for South African war crimes and Frank Kamai as a blind Japanese survivor. On the whole, the other performances are solid and understated, mercifully free of “special effects” and scenery chewing. Max Brooks (who plays himself) came across as too cheery for me; at times, his artificially bright tones seemed to evoke the kind of insincere voice-overs many of us remember from disaster footage; at other times he just rang false. The only other weak note came with the opening voice-over from Steve Park, who plays a Chinese surgeon. I have no way of knowing whether Park hails from China or not, but his accent sounded fake to me and evoked unwanted thoughts of the practice of white men playing exaggerated ethnicities in old Hollywood.

I was disappointed to find that the audio version of World War Z left out some of the most talked-about scenes from the book. Abridgement goes hand in hand with audio translation, and for all I know most of the eliminated scenes wouldn’t have worked in audio format. Nevertheless, scenes like the notorious zombie attack on the submarine were sorely missed. It’s omissions like these that will probably lead completists to choose the text version of World War Z over the audiobook, but horror fans facing long commutes will find the audio version well worth a listen.

Siobhan Carroll is a doctoral student at Indiana University. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in magazines such as On Spec, Room of One's Own, and Son and Foe.