I’m anticipating watching the film World War Z with my mother in the near future (her suggestion), and in preparation I recently purchased and read Max Brook’s book. I’ve been a bit of a zombie enthusiast for a long time, and I have to admit that I really enjoyed Brook’s variation on the genre.
I’ve never read the Studs Terkel book that Brooks used as structural inspiration, but I suspect that I will be purchasing it soon. The idea of historiography as a compilation of perspectives is not a new one, but it takes significant amounts of pavement-pounding to do well. Brooks has a major advantage over Terkel because he (obviously) didn’t actually have to interview anybody, but sometimes the creative process involved in ‘creating’ a witness can be just as intensive. I also wonder what Terkel would have thought of his methodology being used to record a fictional war between humans and the undead, but, considering the man died in 2008, it’s a little difficult to ask.
As I’ve been pondering World War Z, I’ve been wondering what it is that makes the undead such an attractive antagonist for mankind. Is it their ‘otherness,’ like the alien threat depicted in so many movies? Is it the palpable horror of being forcibly assimilated into their ranks (like a modern borg)? Is it the horrible intimacy of being attacked by friends and family as they lose the innate elements of their humanity?
A thousand voices have speculated on this question, and frankly, I don’t really care what the accepted answer is. I suspect that the true attraction of zombie stories is the same as every other apocalypse narrative from Matheson’s I Am Legend to Planet of the Apes.
We love apocalypse narratives because they articulate the death throes of our society in a chilling (and hopefully insightful) manner. We have spent centuries building our civilization; how long would it take to destroy it? What would the warning signs of our destruction be, and what alliances and enmities would survive the erosion of our global politic? Would (as Brooks suggests) India and Pakistan continue their belligerence, while Cuba surpasses the U.S. as financial capital of North America? Would Russia actually revert to a complete monarchy supported by an ultra-orthodox religious establishment?
Historians scoff at these “what if” questions, dismissing them as mere conjecture. After all, the number of variables involved prevents the acceptance of any ‘definitive’ answer, and consequently the discussion is endless. Yet who is to say that Brooks is attempting to articulate a “definitive” history of what a zombie war would entail? In my personal opinion, World War Z, like most apocalyptic narratives, aims only to be plausible, not perfect.
If you’ve noticed anything watching zombie films, or television shows like The Walking Dead, it’s that the living’s response to the undead is one of exodus. I thought Brooks makes a very clever comment through the mouths of one of his characters who scoffs at the lines of abandoned vehicles on post-apocalyptic American highways. They didn’t know where they were going, the character mourns, and yet they went anyway.
I wonder why this is so, why people’s response to fear is to move, to flee, to abandon what they know and set off for the unknown. Perhaps it is the lack of opportunity afforded script-writers by a claustrophobic siege in a fortified suburban home, or perhaps it is the human impulse, when presented with limitless possibility, to never settle. After all, there could be a better hideaway just over the horizon, or medical supplies, or possible (gasp!) an unread Grisham novel. In every apocalyptic flick there is a rumour or legend that things are better ‘out west’ or ‘east’ or ‘the Russian survived,” and this too compels the exodus.
Yet what do they find over that next hill? In the canon it’s rarely the safe haven the usual hapless survivor desires. Weird dystopian societies materialize out of the apocalyptic fog, or revived ancient blood cults. Occasionally the locals are friendly and able, but they are inevitably on their last tank of gas or munching their final box of Mini-Wheats. The land of the dead is not conducive to the nice or the principled; after all, neither group make for good television.
I am always troubled by the ease with which society dissolves into chaos, as if the sentience which allows the survivors to, well, survive, is simultaneously the greatest enemy of the unwashed, faceless masses. Brooks touches on this following the disastrous battle for Yonkers, New York, in which a few thousand American troops attempt to purge the Big Apple’s infected. They adopt conventional military tactics, digging trenches, establishing kill zones, and readying artillery support, yet what they are really doing (as Brooks rightly suggests) is gathering the ingredients for victory against a human opponent. Artillery and air support are profoundly effective weapons, yet much of their value is in their sheer psychological deterrent. A big bomb may break the morale of a conventional force (“aweing” them into submission), but the dead have neither morale nor the capacity to be awed. The dead simple keep coming, literally to ‘the last corpse standing.’ There has never been a human force capable of such sacrifice (don’t even think of mentioning Zack Snyder’s butchering of Thermopylae), which is why social collapse is an inevitable result of the zombie apocalypse. The undead are united in a single goal, rallied to a common, overwhelming, need; humanity is divided by the drive to survive. Our ability to think, to perceive ourselves as individuals, is by far our most dangerous weakness in the face of the zombie horde.
Then again, it is precisely the individuals among us who rise to greatness and lead the shattered remnants of humanity back into the sun. There are no great zombies, and once Brooks creates a veteran and newly-equipped army to combat the undead, their demise is inevitable. Once industry is reestablished behind the Urals (oops, I mean Rockies. I forgot which World War we were referencing), and the artists, English majors, criminally insane, government workers, and liberals are ‘retrained’ from their amusingly useless “F6” designation into carpenters, doctors, plumbers, and soldiers, the gods of war shift their favor upon the living. Consequently, the rest of the book reads more like a WWII memoir than a horror story. The dead lose their power and terror, and man rises to conquer once more.
What Brooks has done is not revolutionary; he has simply taken scraps of philosophy from a hundred apocalyptic narratives and woven into one unusually cerebral work. Nevertheless, it is a work that provides far more intellectual meat than your average zombie flick, and fills in chronological gaps that, for the sake of space and ratings, are common among the conventions. At some point, my mother and I will sally forth to watch the Brad Pitt vehicle, and I expect to be disappointed.
Because, despite all my talk of intellect, I’m a Resident Evil fan, and Brad Pitt ain’t no Milla Jovovich.