World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
Review by Mike Finkelstein
When looking at zombie fiction (as opposed to zombie fact which would be, what, the study of the Voodoo religion?), there is a tendency to focus on specific characters at a specific point in their lives, usually either as they suffer through the outbreak of the zombie scourge, or survive at some later point in the "war", as the zombies have taken over and the last remnant of humanity slowly frays apart. Outside of George Romero's series of films, which didn't follow specific characters but did follow the zombie-torn world, most zombie media really doesn't look at the long-term consequences of a potential zombie outbreak.
That was a trend that shifted more recently, though, with two separate works: Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead -- which looked at a zombie outbreak from the perspective of a specific set of characters as they just kept surviving, week after week and month after month -- and, three years after the start of that comic series, World War Z -- which took on the zombie outbreak with a much more international flair, crafting a long-form look at the outbreak from the start to the (relative) finish of the "war".
For those that have only seen the Brad Pitt-starring 2013 film adaptation, you might be surprised by the fact that World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War is not the tale of one man running around the world, trying to find a cure for the zombie plague. Instead, the novel is told after the fact, as a collection of tales from the survivors themselves. The character overseeing the story remains (largely) quiet during the novel, letting the other characters, those he's interviewing for his oral history, tell their tales of surviving, from the earliest days of the outbreak, to the full sweep of the plague, to the days where it seemed like all of civilizations was destroyed, only for humanity to then rage back across their own territories, taking out "Zack" and bringing the war to a (relatively) happy conclusion.
As an exploration of the zombie outbreak, start to finish, there's a lot to like about the World War Z novel. The book presents a number of perspective we don't regularly see in horror media, especially in the West; the book has an international tone, "collecting" tales not just from the U.S. but also from many other countries around the world, featuring lead characters that are Chinese, South Korean, Russian, German, Indian, South African, Brazilian, and on, and on. That international flair helps to sell the idea that the zombie plague spread across the entire world and isn't just an American problem.
I did also appreciate that we got the full range of stories, from outbreak to success, with each country having their own spin on the tale, their own history meeting up with the zombie plague, coloring their interactions. Israel is depicted as the most pragmatic, going so far as to close their borders (with a giant wall) but only after accepting in as many uninfected humans as they could. The Chinese essentially implode their own government under the strain the zombies place on their iron fist of rule. Meanwhile the Russians shift back to being a zealot-like religious country, hard and cold and made of iron.
Some of these perspective, I will note, seem more realistic that others. I'm not Russian, for instance, so I can't speak to how accurate that version of events might be (were it to happen for real), but considering that Russian used to consider itself the seat of the "Third Catholic Church" (after the Western and Eastern Churches of Rome and Constantinople, respectively) it's not entirely a stretch. China ditching Communism, even in the face of a government failing to control the zombie plague just seems like wish fulfillment, though. And then there's North Korea which, supposedly, has all its people retreat into mountainous, subterranean complexes, never to be seen again. That seems like straight up sci-fi.
It might be silly to nitpick what countries could or couldn't do in a fiction such as this when the very concept of zombie has already stretched disbelief, but this book tries to paint itself as a serious "what if?" With that kind of tone, little niggling issues I had about what countries realistically would or wouldn't do cause issues in my head. I couldn't quite shut my brain off the way the book needed, and I was sitting there, time and again, saying, "yeah, I don't think that would really happen.
Additionally, for a book that paints itself as an international look at a possible zombie war, the entire climax of the film (as humanity finally finds a way to fight back) is told from the perspective of America. While I can appreciate the discussion of what it took to secure a country as large as the U.S., I really was invested in the other countries and I wanted to know how they would secure their borders and cleanse the land of Zack. The novel doesn't provide that information, instead ending with a "American did it, hurray!" perspective that seems at odds with the rest of the novel.
As one final nitpick, the novel is very heavy on male perspectives but it lacks a lot of female voices in the stories. Going through the novel I noticed that there were only about four female lead characters in the span of what was easily a hundred (give or take) short stories. Of those, each and everyone, in some way, was driven crazy by what was going on around them, while most of the men were able to keep their cool and come out the other side stronger. It's a weird, frankly chauvinistic perspective when you lay it all out, and I found that curious.
It's especially so when you consider that most of the characters don't tell tales from a specifically "male" or "female" perspective. In about ninety percent of the tales (just as an estimate) you could easily switch the genders of the person telling the story and nothing would change about what they're saying. A little girl who went mad and relives the day of the zombie outbreak over and over could just as easily be a little boy, while one of the U.S. soldiers that fights with their soldiers across the Western Front of the war could just as well be a woman (and they even talk about a few of the women that are in their ranks, so this was a equal-gendered war on the sidelines). I'm not sure why the author did this, or if they even realized it was happening, but the book lack female voices all the same.
These issues do hold the back from being truly great, but I will also admit I only noticed this stuff the second time around. I read the book years ago when it came out and loved it; it's only now, as I read and watch everything with a critical eye for this website, that I noticed the issues with the novel. You might not have the same perspective if you go into it fresh and it could be an absolute winner. For me I still like the concept of the book, and I found many of the stories quite compelling. There's just something that's a little off about the novel, something that keeps it from being a true legend of the zombie genre all these years later.