Almost all the fiction and films about zombies focus on the immediate threat they present, how the protagonists escape, defeat, or succumb to the mindless, undead killing machines that pursue them. Max Brooks takes a different approach in WORLD WAR Z: His tale is told by the survivors, after the fact.

The framework is WORLD WAR Z is simple: Twelve years after the great zombie war, an author of the United Nation’s Postwar Commission Report decides to collect the stories of the people involved in all facets of the war. So he interviews people – injecting him into the stories as little as possible – and gathers the stories together in sections (such as the early days when the outbreak was described as “African rabies,” to the darkest times of the war, to the push to retake the world) that, together, chart the development of what happened.

The survivors interviewed are a truly varied lot. They not only come from different countries, but they also had very different roles in the war. There’s an entrepreneur who shamelessly made money off the initial panic – and refuses to apologize from profiting from all the death. There are politicians who re-created their countries after the fall, sometimes advancing (Cuba became capitalist!) or going back (as Russia became a dictatorship again). A soldier tells the horrors of the Battle of Yonkers, the first massive defeat for the human armies; a wheelchair-bound patrolman talks about how to beat the zombies one on one. And we learn about the Redeker Plan, the template begun in South Africa, and adopted almost everywhere else, that calculated, through horrifying scientific methodology, not just who would be saved, but how the rest would be sacrificed to ensure the survival of the saved.

WORLD WAR Z goes beyond the zombie threat to how people tried to keep their humanity during the crisis. One woman recounts how when so many people fled north to Canada (where the cold would slow down or even stop the zombies), the initial camaraderie shared by those survivors degenerated as food ran out. A Chinese military official struggled with his decision to effectively desert the army and steal a nuclear submarine for the survival of his crew. We even hear from a “feral child,” one of the children who survived and grew in the wild when their parents (and towns) were killed.

Max Brooks (who previously “covered” the zombie threat with his tongue-in-cheek book THE ZOMBIE SURVIVAL GUIDE) gives us a compelling look (or, more accurately, look back) at how humanity would react to and handle a crisis. His characters are all diverse, believable, and affected in different ways by a catastrophe that brought out both the worst and the best in people. The zombies aren’t what’s important (for example, we never learn what started it all); the people are, and the mosaic of their stories creates a picture of what happened in the war and what is happening now. WORLD WAR Z is an original, engaging take on zombies – and the people who were changed by them.

Overall grade: A

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