Certain works of popular culture always seem to perfectly reflect the mood of the times. Back in the 1950s there was the explosion of Science Fiction films - mainly of the “Alien Invasion” variety - which perfectly reflected the Cold War paranoia of the times. In the 1970s, there was a spate of “Evil Baby/Children” films such as Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen, which seemed to reflect the mood of the then adults of the “Me Generation”’s views towards children and more specifically, having them. During the 1980s, there were films, television shows, music and novels which celebrated the Reagan Era boom times and also a curious series of films that either reflected on and tried to make sense of the Vietnam War experience or cinematically “re-fight” it (and this time winning) with a whole series of Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo films or their B-movie counterparts starring Chuck Norris. (Not to mention all the “Drug War” films that went along with those - all of which, curiously, reflected the Lifestyles Of The Rich and Famous ethos. In the 1990s, there were plenty of “slacker” films and their Big Chill-like explorations into the “lost generation” for the Gen X era. So it should come as no surprise at all that the Zombie story (as well as most other “apocalyptic” (post and otherwise) should come along and reflect our Post-September 11th world.
I’m not sure exactly when the “Zombie craze” began but there has most definitely been an uptick in zombie stories - books, films, television shows and video games - since September 11th and the advent of “The War on Terror” and if you think about it, it just makes sense. I’m not adverse to zombie stories, having loved George Romero’s Night of The Living Dead and Dawn of The Dead as a teenager. (I admit, though, I haven’t any interest in watching The Walking Dead although I hear it is a really good show - which also undoubtedly reflects our post-9/11 world). One of the more popular - if not the most popular - work of “Zombie” lit to come out of this is Max Brook’s World War Z. Tons of my friends have either read this or have seen the (deemed inferior) film version and have urged me to read it for some time. Being that I’m a curious person, especially when it comes to observing how popular culture reflects the times it is created in, I decided to finally read this fun and highly entertaining novel.
The whole idea of “The Zombie” has changed a lot since George Romero’s day. In Romero’s films - and 99 percent of all other zombie stories - the undead are slow, lumbering, creatures whose only goal seems to nourish on the living’s brains. They all usually have a group of protagonists who are somehow trapped - either in a house or a mall or some other isolated place - and they must fight off this invasion of the dead, coming for them. World War Z kicks it up a couple of notches, developing a whole new idea behind the army of the dead by fusing it with other fears, traumas and post-apocalyptic ideas - the rampant pandemic just being one of them. In most other zombie stories, one never really knows why the dead come back to life and if any explanation is given, it usually has something to do with the apocalyptic biblical notion of “the dead will rise from their graves” or something akin to it. Being that we are now in the 21st century - contemporary fears are utilized and in this particular case, the dead are reanimated due to a pandemic virus, which seems to have it’s origins - interestingly enough - in Western China (the area where the Uighur population lives - a Turkic Muslim people, long oppressed by the Chinese).
The novel is written as an “oral history” and its main protagonist is a man who worked for the United Nations reporting on this strange turn of events. Having survived the “zombie war”, he sets about interviewing a whole host of survivors who tell the tale of what actually happened for future generations who will want and need to know the true story. And this story spans the globe - from China, to Central Asia, the United States, Europe, the Caribbean - there isn’t one piece of ground that wasn’t affected by this strange and terrifying pandemic which nearly brought an end to existence as we (and they) knew it. Along with these “first hand accounts” we see a very curious commentary on our contemporary world - everything from fears of “the other” to rapidly depleting natural resources, to the changing face of warfare and how the once, old, “standard” battle lines have morphed into what is essentially “asymmetrical warfare”, the greed of corporations who exploit the fears of the population by offering useless defenses against “the virus”, their only concern is massive profits, the divide between the haves and have-nots when it comes to protecting oneself against this invasion, and especially the complete and utter disconnect between the average population - who only concern themselves with trivial entertainment, gossip and other trivial matters - while the whole world is in sudden collapse around them. While certainly not a perfect novel (it is sometimes loaded with Hollywood-like cliches in both scenario and in the personalities of the some of characters and its Tom Clancy-esque detail to military hardware gets to be a little too much at times. It’s clear from this reading who Brooks’s intended audience was), it is highly entertaining and thought provoking in the sense that it captures contemporary times perfectly and most importantly reflects our “fear of the other” and an “invading horde” who knows no morality, who are willing to indiscriminately kill anything or anyone in their path. And they are everywhere, coming for you. If this isn’t post-9/11 trauma, I don’t know what is.
But the biggest “enemy” here seems to be ourselves - where all systems of normality break down and people suddenly become “infected” with the “virus” of self-preservation, where our own sense of morality and decency crumbles away along with the rest. In a climate of fear and paranoia sometimes our worst impulses come to the fore and this novel, if anything, is more of a warning about us than it is about “the other”. In the wake of this novel there have been a countless amount of its imitators, each with their own take on the post-apocalyptic world. Try this one out for size. It will get you thinking about where we are right now. It will be interesting to see people read this twenty years from now and how more glaringly obvious it becomes that this book is a testament of our present time - much like we look back at those 1950s Science Fiction films and chuckle over the “paranoia” of the Communist Invasion of their day.