World War Z by Max Brooks – Review by Sarah Giffen


Zombie literature had never appealed to my reading tastes.  Lurching, bloody, undead bodies attacking humans held no interest for me until an 8th grade boy recommended World War Z by Max Brooks.   After I looked askance at him, the student pleaded, “just give it a chance – it’s great!”  Well, I did.  The student was right.


World War Z does have lurching undead bodies but, more importantly, it has a unique and effective way of telling its story.  The book is written a decade after the end of the “Zombie War” or has know by it’s hipper label, World War Z.  The author is a United Nations staff member involved in writing an “after-action report” that his boss deems is too opinionated and human (no small irony there).  She wants facts and figures and so the official report is exactly that, much to the staff member’s dismay.  He writes this book, from his personal interviews and notes, so as to present the human factor in this terrible, grisly catastrophe that almost destroyed human civilization.


World War Z is organized as a series of chapters (Pay attention to the chapter headings to understand how events unfold.) with interviews with people who survived.  Beginning with the discovery of Patient Zero in China, we follow how the zombie infection spread to other countries.  Many countries, including the United States, were slow to react or felt protected by a phony vaccine.  Other countries recognized the danger early and acted in self-protection.  Israel closed its border to all except Israelis or Palestinians who had to pass inspection with trained sniffer dogs.  South Africa implements a plan based on apartheid which eventually many other countries adopt.  The United States tries conventional warfare methods but discovers that “shock and awe” tactics are counterproductive killing methods against the undead.  Zombies are only killed by a direct head shot and missiles and tanks only create more undead that “reanimate.”  The United States loses the Battle of Yonkers and retreats west using the Rocky Mountains as a natural barrier (zombies freeze in cold, but come to “life” when the weather warms up).  Finally, an effective strategy is designed and the United States, and the rest of the world, is able to go on the offensive and achieve victory.  Please note that this is not a spoiler alert as the author tells this at the beginning of the book.


Why am I reviewing and highly recommending this book?  Brooks plays the telling of the story straight.  He shows the human side of this ghastly “epidemic” by letting the people who survived tell their stories.  Through a series of interviews from doctors, journalists, politicians, soldiers, veterinarians, students and K-9 retirement home managers, Brooks gives us the unfolding facts and the corresponding human reactions.  There are governmental cover-ups and screw-ups, denials, the Great Panic and eventually ruthless solutions that lead to victory.  There is no hero.  We hear from those who saw, fought, ran, and lost family, friends, homes, countries and their sanity.  All this is told through their personal experiences with little of facts and figures.  Brooks gives an underlying sense of numbness to his interviewees which helps create the sense of dread disbelief that permeates the book.  By having the survivors tell their stories he avoids ratcheting up blood and gore to grab our attention and instead focuses our attention on the numerous individual horrors that each survivor story symbolizes.


I have recommended this book to many from high school students to adults and have always received an enthusiastic response.  One teacher was so mesmerized by this book that he spent an entire weekend reading it, as did I.  I know the movie is scheduled for release soon but, based on the trailers, I am not sure it will do justice to this terrifically entertaining, creepy, and nightmarish read.

Sarah Giffen is a reference librarian at St. Ingatius College Preparatory. You can find her on Twitter as @srgiffen.