Mild Dermatographia

Review: World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War


I watched I Am Legend a few years after it came out and was thoroughly whelmed; quasi-intelligent zombies, a lone survivor, and not much else to write home about. I remember people complaining about the I Am Legend movie being nothing like the book, and last year, I finally read it. If I had removed the titles, I never would have guessed that they were supposed to be the same thing. While the book focused on the psychological impact of being a lone survivor surrounded by fully intelligent vampires and has a couple fun twists, the movie dillutes them to primitive humans who, only at the very end, have any kind of semblance of a social system, and only half-way through, any kind of intelligence. It gives lip service to the psychological aspect of the main character and fills the rest of the run-time with action. Overall, I found the novel an interesting study on isolation and the world moving right past someone, and the movie,a generic action movie.

I imagine anyone who’s read World War Z knows where this is going; once again, we have an incredibly interesting book, dilluted down into an action movie. First, a quick review, then the contrast.

I loved this book. It’s essentially a compilation of interviews with survivors from all over the globe, telling their tale from various stages of the outbreak, from pre-outbreak to present day and everything in between. The stories are very diverse in focus, from combat, to psychology, geography, religion, politics, and more. Some feel incredibly badass while others are absolutely horrifying.

Most importantly for me, it answers the question no zombie movie or TV show has ever bothered to even think about: how could the modern world, and especially heavily militarized countries, ever become overrun with a horde of shuffling zombies (and indeed, they are zombies in the traditional sense, not the sprinters from the movie)? It does so in a perfectly satisfying manner, the details of which I’ll avoid spoiling here.

As well as the progression of the outbreak feeling perfectly natural and not at all forced (looking at you, literally all other zombie media), Brooks does a great job of tying the stories together in a very satisfying way, characters often making callbacks to others from previous interviews without knowing their host has already interviewed and received a first-hand account.

Unlike a novel like Hyperion, where disparate stories are tied together by an all-powerful death-god but otherwise feel incredibly disconnected and mostly tedious, World War Z presents the stories chronologically and thoroughly, covering every stage of the outbreak sequentially, cherry-picking interesting tales from around the globe which don’t overstay their welcome. I do wonder if Brook’s representation of other cultures is accurate, but I don’t have the knowledge to evaluate it properly.

Overall World War Z is 5/5 for me, answering the age of question of “how did zombies ever get so far” in a way which feels very well thought out, and organized in a way which kept me interested from start to finish.

The review out of the way, I find the parallel in treatement of World War Z and I Am Legend very interesting. Both sport a generic supernatural villain; vampires and zombies. Neither author made an effort to make them unique. Neither needed to, because the novels feel much less about the supernatural threat, and more about the people who must live in their respective post-apocalyptic worlds; the psychological fallout, the politics, the lifestyle adjustments. Both were picked up to be movies, and in both cases, it seems the studios decided that zombies and vampires were too generic, and so threw them out (and everything else that made the books worth reading), replaced them with incrementally different variants, and made generic hero-protagonist action movies. I can see how making a proper World War Z movie could be impossible; in which case, it probably should have become a TV series, each episode focusing on a different period of the conflict. Instead, we have a generic action movie with the title of a much more unique book tacked on.