Zombie movies have always been something of a guilty pleasure of mine. I don’t watch them very often, but I do watch a couple each year. Most are disposable “so bad it’s good” type movies, while others are well-crafted comedies, such as Zombieland or Shaun of the Dead. A rare few, like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later are something really special. I almost never have nightmares, but I had one after seeing that particular vision of hell.
But the novel World War Z puts them all in the shade. Written by Max Brooks and published in 2006, it is done as an oral history. I like reading oral histories, and Brooks was partly inspired by his experience of reading The Good War by Studs Terkel. I haven’t read The Good War, but I have read Japan at War, written by Haruko and Theodore Cook. It consists of interviews with Japanese people from all walks of life, talking about their experiences before, during, and after the Second World War. It was an incredibly moving book, and it is to Brooks’ credit that he manages to conjure up something of the same spirit in a book about a zombie apocalypse.
The plague starts in China, which tries to cover it up. Refugees flee the country, and gradually the contagion spreads all over the globe. Government inaction and incompetence, apathetic populations, and opportunistic businesspeople all contribute to the situation gradually worsening until the future of the human race itself is threatened.
The world Brooks depicts is scarily believable. China’s cover-up is reminiscent of what happened with SARS, American military mistakes bring Iraq to mind, and Russia gradually lapsing into Tsarist theocracy does not seem a stretch at all.
But the true power of his book is in the memorable characters he creates. WWZ contains the stories of soldiers, doctors, politicians and many more giving their experiences of the war. An American veteran angrily explains the military disaster that was the battle of Yonkers, a Cuban businessman relates with irony how American refugees fled to his country, and an Australian astronaut tells of watching the world go to hell from the International Space Station.
Also, stories of how some great leaders were killed, not by hostile action, but by the awesome responsibilities of their positions, really ring true, bringing to mind the US president FDR and Australian prime minister John Curtin, both of whom led their countries during world war two and died just as victory was in sight.
A movie will be made of the book, and I am very curious to see what happens with it. If done right, I think it has the potential to be the best zombie film ever made. With WWZ Brooks created a real work of art, and I truly hope that the film lives up to it.