I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when zombies return from the dead. But the zombie mania of the 21st century did catch me unawares.
The undead had kept a low profile since George Romero’s cult classic The Night of the Living Dead (1968), made on a miniscule budget of $114,000 but destined for preservation in the National Film Registry for its 'cultural' and 'aesthetic' significance. Others had tried to imitate this phenomenon in subsequent years, but with mixed results. Peter Jackson, later to hit the box office jackpot with Tolkein-inspired films, tried his hand at zombie-dom with Braindead (1992), but his failure was the mirror image of Romero's success—Braindead only generated $243,000 in US receipts. Re-animator (1985) based on an early H.P. Lovecraft novella, only did marginally better, pulling in a humble $2 million at the box office. Cemetery Man from 1994 had the biggest success of this motley crew, but still only sold $4 million in tickets—hardly justifying the exhumation expenses.
But anyone proclaiming the death of the zombie got a shock in the new millennium. A series of films inspired by the Resident Evil video game brought in close to a billion dollars. And, soon, zombies were everywhere in pop culture, from manga to TV series. Protestors held ‘zombie walks’ to call attention to their causes, and past literary classics were rewritten to make room for the undead—most notably in Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009).
But move aside Mr. Darcy, the real literary star of his movement is Max Brooks. He boasts an unlikely lineage for horror—his parents are comedy icon Mel Brooks and actress Anne Bancroft, best known for playing Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. The younger Brooks started out in his father’s footsteps, as staff writer for Saturday Night Live, but he quickly turned his allegiance to the Saturday night undead with the publication of his 2003 book The Zombie Survival Guide. This oddball work, which hovers between parody and practical manual, was a surprising bestseller, and Brooks decided that zombies were his true calling. His follow-up book World War Z spent a month on the New York Times bestseller list, sold a million copies, and spawned a Brad Pitt movie that was the biggest-grossing zombie film of all time.
The novel, for its part, resembles a screenplay. The action moves forward via dialogue and rapid scene changes. Stage directions and description of setting are kept to an absolute minimum. Brooks makes little attempt to fit these isolated scenes into a larger narrative. Each interlude presents a separate incident, but the sequencing is haphazard—after a scene in South Africa, we move immediately to Ireland, and then to the Ukraine, next to Canada, and so on.
We are introduced to new conflicts and characters with each geographical shift—indeed, every chapter, and sub-section with each chapter could stand alone as a self-contained tale. This pointillistic approach is both World War Z’s greatest virtueand also its most significant stumbling block. Brooks deftly crafts each scene, and for a hundred pages or so, the reader willingly accepts the disjunctive structure (or lack of structure) to the novel. But eventually the absence of a larger arc to the narrative undermines the tension. Brooks claims he has written the account of a war, but what he has delivered is merely a series of battles.
Even so, many of these make for memorable set pieces. The battle for Yonkers—in which zombies deliver a crushing defeat to the US military—is presented with vivid detail, and Brooks does justice both to the subjective psychological and objective tactical maneuvers of his theater of action. The lengthy account of a Chinese nuclear sub that decides to pursue its own homemade survival plan is equally riveting, as is the story of a blind Japanese man who survives alone in the wilderness, battling zombies he can’t even see.
Occasionally Brooks aims for dark comedy, as in his account of celebrities who decide to retire to a private fortress and wait out the zombie apocalypse—meanwhile streaming their star- studded survivalist antics to the rest of the world over the web. But, for the most part, our authorsopts for horror over humor, although his various narrators often find time for wry one- liners.
Brooks is at his best when operating at a granular level. He seems to take particular delight in describing weapons and formations—this same intense interest in the mano a mano aspects of dealing with the undead came across in The Zombie Survival Guide. Here, again, he seems to align his priorities with cinematic details that might translate well into action scenes on the screen. But this also works well in print. Brooks certainly convinces us of his expertise—either he spent a lot of time researching firearms and explosions, or he is a bit of a survivalist himself.
But for all the clever repartee and convincing accounts of various zombie lobotomizing equipment, World War Z never quite rises to the highest rung of horror novel. I might recommend that a fan of the genre read a few of the sections, as quasi-short stories, but over the long haul this book runs out of momentum. Brooks’s attempt to revisit characters and wrap up loose threads in the final pages is a case of too little, too late. We never got to know the individuals long enough to maintain interest in their happily-ever-after days, nor do we ever get any coherent sense of the big picture story of the war. Indeed, this whole work seems more like a pitch for a movie deal than an attempt to match the great horror writers—King, Poe, Lovecraft, Matheson and company.
Even so, Brooks has a better sense than any of these intrepid forerunners of how to build a multimedia franchise. Hey, Lovecraft was cool, but did he know how to get subsidiary revenue from an app, and sell graphic novels? Did Poe offer supplementary educational materials for schools and license his intellectual property for video games. Give Brooks credit: his zombies have legs, and they won’t settle for a measly book deal. So I may hesitate in lauding World War Z as a top tier genre novel, but it is a killer of a brand.
Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz from Basic Books.
Publication Date: December 3, 2016
This is my year of horrible reading. I am reading the classics of horror fiction during the course of 2016, and each week will write about a significant work in the genre. You are invited to join me in my annus horribilis. During the course of the year—if we survive—we will have tackled zombies, serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and monsters of all denominations. Check back each week for a new title...but remember to bring along garlic, silver bullets and a protective amulet. Ted Gioia