Thursday, July 15

Considering Max Brooks' "World War Z: An oral history of the zombie war"

In the shadow of their resurgent vampire and werewolf brethren, zombies have enjoyed a renaissance of their own (ha, irony) in the past decade or so.  For obvious reasons, they lack sex symbols as potent as those found in Twilight and True Blood, but be sure, this return is just as real.  I would go ahead and estimate the origin with the release of Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake in 2004 and the accompanying innovation of zombies who don't just stumble along but run and cling to ceilings.  In the years since Robert Kirkman completed his The Walking Dead series; Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising were released for the Xbox 360; George A. Romero wrote and directed Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, Day of the Dead and Survival of the Dead with their contemporary social and political allegories; and Seth Grahame-Smith regurgitated Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with no allegories, original ideas, intelligent thought or fun.  Complete media saturation only awaits the inception of the zombiecore musical genre.

Like most all things that manage to attain some level of lasting popularity, the academy has begun to treat zombies with a degree of respect, that is by suggesting the monsters can be used to explain their pet political, social, cultural, literary, historical, economic, gender, philosophical models.  Max Brooks brings the same pretension to the masses with World War Z.  The narrative is global as the war is revealed through interviews with survivors.  They describe the first isolated cases, the spread, the failures, the response, the survival and the victory.  They describe it as scientists, soldiers, politicians, mercenaries, refugees, businessmen, heroes, cowards and every other conceivable position.  They describe it from China, Pakistan, Polynesia, Canada, Cuba, Australia, both coasts of the United States, space and all the other nations.

From these many perspectives, Brooks crafts something that is less story and more essay.  Like the sub-title says, it's an "oral history," not a novel.  Brooks is not so much concerned with narrative as with explications of historical and contemporary national trends in the face of an undead threat.  At the worst, his ideas are insipid.  Vacuous celebrities retreat to a fortified mansion to survive the zombie masses while their every minute is recorded by webcam.  The upper classes have no real skills and are reduced to learning to live and survive from their former housekeepers and repairmen.  At other times he does arouse some interest as he suggests that South Africa, by adapting a plan originally intended for the containment of black revolution, creates the common national response to the zombie threat and the French, tired of being the losers in every war, decide they are going to throw every able-bodied citizen into clearing Paris of the infestation and never retreat.  Unfortunately, these individual moments are lost in the greater mass and limited by the interview form where introduction, rising action, climax and denouement are compressed into a few pages, also messing up the pacing for the greater work.  Brooks gets lost, too, in the many voices in World War Z.  There are too many and too little time to develop them.  They end up being defined more by their fit to stereotypes and quirks of personality than real presence of character.

These are all fairly minor problems against the greater one of the straight-faced approach to zombies.  They're ridiculous creatures.  They shamble and moan and ask for brains.  Their bits fall off.  They can be defeated by walking away quickly.  They deserve academic pretension as much as Weird Al and Dane Cook.  A zombie outbreak means the world becomes a playground.  The ideal medium for the zombie genre is and always has been video games and their ability to fully immerse one in the freedom that only comes when there are no more police or security guards and violent fantasies have a perfect outlet in those who lack every semblance of humanity.  Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland were great to the extent they realized this.  Steal a Lamborghini.  Drive it until the fuel runs out and steal a Hummer next.  Bash in the decaying brains of zombies with golf clubs and chainsaws.  Hang out in Bill Murray's Hollywood mansion and make china plates your target practice.

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