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World War Z | Context

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Zombies in History and Imagination

The word zombie traces to a Haitian word, zombi, or further back to the West African zumbi, meaning "fetish." Originally a figure from Haitian voodoo religion, the modern American zombie is detached from religious purpose. Zombies in film and books come in many forms, but all lack free will and most are threats to humans.

William Seabrook's The Magic Island (1929), a part-fiction, part-fact travel book about Haiti, made the word zombie known in the United States and spurred the publication of other early books on the topic. Zombies joined monsters and aliens in comic books as well, beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, assuming their now usual rotting forms. But it is in film genre that the undead truly came to life. Perhaps the earliest film appearance of the zombie is 1932's White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi of Dracula fame. This movie draws on the Haitian voodoo tradition; the protagonist hires the witch doctor Legendre, played by Lugosi, to lure a woman away from her fiancé, but instead Legendre turns her into a zombie slave. Similar movies, featuring emotionless, passive zombies, followed. But in George Romero's breakout film Night of the Living Dead (1968), zombies actively pursue and destroy humans. Zombie filmography exploded in the following decades, and soon the aggressive zombie was as familiar a fictional character as was the vampire or alien.

Zombies have been called a blank template into which any current anxiety can be poured. They've also provided entertainment in the form of video games, costumed zombie walks, and zombie apocalypse preparedness events. Inspired in part by World War Z, even the Centers for Disease Control uses the zombie motif to promote emergency preparedness, as in a 2013 article entitled "Zombies—A Pop Culture Resource for Public Health Awareness."

Zombies and Max Brooks

Before he wrote World War Z, Max Brooks wrote The Zombie Survival Guide, even though this guide takes place before World War Z in the fictional timeline. The books use the same narrator—a fictionalized version of Brooks. Often in interviews and interactions, as well as on his website, Brooks assumes the persona of this character, as though it were he himself who went through the character's experiences. The Zombie Survival Guide explains what people learned, at great risk, during the war, and its narrator uses the information in it to guide the content of World War Z.

In both books, Brooks advocates for a realistic assessment of what life would be like in a time of terrible plague. Movies that make zombies campy or present human heroics as sexy frustrate him. Death from starvation, pollution, lack of clean water, bungled evacuation, or scavengers, in addition to the plague's threat, is reality he presents to readers. Thus, even though the The Zombie Survival Guide has been described as a parody, Brooks's tone is serious and urgent. Preparation for any threat, not just zombies, is the guide's goal.

The goal for readers, on the other hand, may be displacement. Brooks speaks in interviews and lectures about the feeling many Americans have of being under threat from enemies that can't be seen such as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome/AIDS or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome/SARS. Other such enemies can't be stopped, such as hurricanes, or can't be predicted, like a cancer that appears out of the blue. Science fiction and fantasy threats provide some people a way to process such feelings.

The Zombies of World War Z

The Zombie Survival Guide provides insight on the physiological details that govern the zombies in World War Z. Brooks's preferred zombie movie is George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), in which zombies shuffle slowly. Brooks prefers not to consider humanity's fate at the hands of fast zombies.

In the guide, he explains zombie physiology. A virus of unknown origin, Solanum, infects a human through the blood and quickly colonizes the brain's frontal lobe, hijacking it for reproduction. Life functions cease as the brain mutates into a new organ that requires no oxygen and no fuel. Zombies do not need to eat; they can't digest the human or animal flesh they devour. Instead, the bite's sole purpose is to transmit the virus. From infection to reanimation requires less than 24 hours. Reanimated corpses feel no pain and know no fear because they have no ability to think, reason, or collaborate. The undead are driven only by the virus's need to replicate and spread. They merely react to stimuli and will do so until the brain is destroyed.

Fortunately, zombies are not immortal. They decay slowly because Solanum inhibits the bacteria that cause decay, but they rot away in about three to five years. Nor do zombies have superhuman strength. Each is about as strong as it was when it died and reanimated, and wear and tear also reduce strength. However, zombies are durable and will never stop carrying out the viral imperative to spread the infection while the mutated brain functions.

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