Literature Study GuidesWorld War ZThe Great Panic Summary

World War Z | Study Guide

Max Brooks

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World War Z | The Great Panic | Summary



Interview 1: Parnell Air National Guard Base: Memphis, Tennessee, USA

Before the war Gavin Blaire flew a commercial blimp, but now he flies a D-17 combat dirigible for the Civil Air Patrol.

When the Great Panic was underway, Blaire was aloft and observed people fleeing on Nebraska's I-80 in any vehicle they could find. Chaotic, irrational behavior dominated. Some people tried to bring useless things with them—even large furniture and pianos. They ran out of gas and then ran from car to car, in the stopped traffic, offering to trade household appliances and even sexual favors for fuel. Others left their cars and walked, carrying children. As the swarm overtook the stopped traffic, people panicked and ran, while those safe in the cars shot at zombies through windows and windshields, after which the unharmed ghouls reached in to pull the passengers out. Blaire found the carnage especially pathetic because no one had a plan. People simply followed those ahead of them and hoped whoever was in front knew where to go.

Interview 2: Alang, India

Ajay Shah was a white-collar office worker who, like many thousands of others, headed for the Alang shipyard, hoping to escape the zombie hordes at sea.

Shah didn't know the Alang shipyard was a ship breaking facility. Old ships were beached on the shore to be stripped and scrapped. A few ships had just arrived and still had some fuel. One ship, the Delmas, was tethered to the beached ship Tulip, already packed with hundreds of people, but when the Delmas attempted to tow the Tulip to sea, it split in half and capsized, trapping its passengers under water. Panicked people tried to swim to other ships, and small boat owners took cash, food, and in one case attractive women as payment for rowing out through the chaotic harbor to ships still afloat. But for every person taking advantage of the panic for profit, ten others risked their lives to help people. Zombies in the sea dragged swimmers down to be bitten and then reanimate; anyone who helped another put himself at danger. Shah himself managed to swim to a ship, but he couldn't climb its smooth, tall hull. Just as he expected to drown, strong arms grabbed him—they belonged not to a zombie but to a crewman who hauled him on board a decommissioned Canadian Coast Guard ship. The crew quickly steered the ship away, passing other ships seething with evacuees and reanimating corpses.

Interview 3: Topeka, Kansas, USA

Sharon is a stunningly beautiful young woman with a young child's mind. She's better off than other children at the Rothman Rehabilitation Home for Feral Children because she has rudimentary speech and thinking. She tells her story in her childlike voice but acts out adults' voices, adds sound effects, and mimes gestures for words she doesn't know and actions she can't understand.

Sharon went with her mother to their church to wait for her father. Other moms and kids were there, with food, flashlights, and sleeping bags. Mrs. Randolph carried a rifle in her "big, soft arms." Pastor Dan and other adults barricaded the doors with benches while the children colored and played. As sirens sounded, Mrs. Cormode, the pastor's strict wife, lectured the other mothers on what to do if the zombies broke through, but Sharon's mother didn't want to do it. The zombies approached, moaning (a sound Sharon mimics with eerie accuracy), and battered at the doors while Sharon's mother rocked her, stroked her face, and promised not to let the zombies get her. The windows shattered, lights went out, and people screamed as zombies flooded in. Mrs. Cormode screamed, "Save the children!" and grabbed Abbie, slamming her against the wall till, as Sharon recalls, the girl stopped crying. Then Sharon's mother began to strangle her. Sharon fought to breathe; then she heard a gunshot and tasted something warm and salty—her mother's blood, readers infer. Big, soft arms carry her across the parking lot and set her down, and a voice tells her to run and not stop.

Interview 4: Khuzhir, Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal, the Holy Russian Empire

The investigator interviews Maria Zhuganova in what readers later learn is a maternity ward. Zhuganova wears her old uniform and looks older than her years. Behind one-way glass, nurses, or perhaps guards, monitor the interview.

Zhuganova was a young soldier finishing a rotation with her unit in North Ossetia, keeping peace between ethnic groups, when military police and a civilian the soldiers nicknamed Rat Face showed up and put the unit on communications blackout. The soldiers were sent door to door in little villages, asking questions about people's health and forcing them to strip for searches—for what, the soldiers didn't know. They came across weapons caches but weren't allowed to touch them. One day, while searching a village, they saw a young girl run toward them, crying in fear. Another girl shuffled oddly after her. Rat Face told Petrenko, a sharpshooter, to take a head shot, but he refused, appalled at the order. So Rat Face walked calmly toward the girl and dispatched her as her mother screamed. No one explained anything.

That night, Zhuganova lay in her bunk, scared. The Military Police had taken Petrenko away and locked up the weapons. Zhuganova longed to talk to her parents. Her anxiety made her so ill she missed the next day's patrol. From her bunk she heard a commotion. She rushed to the parade ground where Arkady, the unit's gunner and Zhuganova's friend and protector, was yelling, "No more lies!" An old woman writhed at his feet as he explained how he killed Rat Face over orders to shoot civilians, no questions asked. Arkady pulled the woman's hood back to reveal her gray face and wild eyes. She snapped at him as her held her out for all to see and then stabbed her in the heart repeatedly. Everyone gasped when she didn't die. As Arkady demanded answers and worried about whether their families back home were contending with "these things," he stopped paying close attention to the old woman, who bit him on the hand before he crushed her face in. "We want to go home!" he screamed, and others joined the cry. Out of nowhere Spetznaz—special operation forces—appeared, shot Arkady, and deployed tear gas as they restrained the unit. The government had decided to handle such rebellions with decimations. The soldiers were ordered to the parade ground in full dress, where they had to vote, in a perversion of democracy, on one soldier of every ten to kill. The commanding officer spoke of duty to the motherland, but for Zhuganova, service was just a job in a corrupt system. Groups of ten soldiers were then forced to choose one to die. Zhuganova remembers the stoic look on Baburin's face as he waited to be stoned to death. "Sheer fucking brilliance," she says now. The process made every soldier complicit, bound by fear and guilt, but able to say they were just following orders.

Interview 5: Bridgetown, Barbados, West Indies Federation

The investigator meets T. Sean Collins in a bar in the fenced-off special economic zone on Barbados. The Caribbean is fairly peaceful after the war, but the special economic zones house people given to "chaotic violence and debauchery." Collins, a huge man from Texas, fits right in.

Collins is a mercenary, though more clean-cut than most. Before the war he provided security to an entertainment or high-finance mogul he can't name because of pending lawsuits. The mogul built a compound fit for the most paranoid survivalist. He invited other wealthy and influential people to ride out the panic with him on Long Island's shore, "playing Moses to the rich and famous." They came—actors and athletes, celebrity personalities and rappers—with their entourages, to party while New York City burned. The mogul had stocked plenty of dehydrated food, installed a desalinization unit so he could use ocean water, and gone off the grid with solar power and turbines. But he was so proud of his compound he put cameras in every room to show it off in a 24-hour webcast. Media outlets sent reporters, too, so the mogul got fantastic exposure.

One day the security team and staff were in the kitchen watching a news feed of people struggling to survive the infestation in the city. The dead stumbled down Third Avenue as people attacked them with baseball bats, hammers, and pipes. People won some encounters but lost more, all while celebrities in the compound judged their efforts cattily. Suddenly, pressure sensors activated. Collins assumed zombies were approaching, but he knew they couldn't scale the compound's walls. Someone shouted that the attackers were fast, which scared Collins—fast zombies could be a threat. He raced to the third-floor and saw heat signatures through a thermal sight on his weapon. Then he understood: hundreds of people had seen the 24-hour feed and decided to take refuge in the compound. Unlike zombies people could climb and cooperate. They came with ladders, they came armed. They carried their children in desperate hope of escape. Some brought explosives that ripped the gates off their hinges. The mogul screamed for his hired guards to "Shootshootshoot!" Expensive vehicles in the parking lot burned as the well-armed attackers swarmed the compound. Some celebrities ordered their young, untrained entourage members to defend them, and a few did (but not for long). Others turned on their former employers and joined the mob. Bodies and blood were everywhere, the attackers were trying to put out a fire, and Collins, who hadn't fired a shot, found a boat and left.

Interview 6: Ice City, Greenland

The investigator meets Ahmed Farahnakian in Ice City, a maze of tunnels powered by wind turbines. Once home to about 250,000 people, it now houses far fewer. Most are custodians at the UN World Heritage Program site, but Farahnakian, once a major in Iran's air force, is there because he has nowhere else to go.

Before the war, Farahnakian notes, India and Pakistan had extensive procedures and careful training in place to prevent miscommunications and misinterpretations that might provoke a nuclear exchange. And so that disaster never happened. But few such arrangements existed between Pakistan and its other neighbor, Iran. Because Iran was so mountainous, the infestation hadn't hit that nation as hard, and the government was quickly suppressing outbreaks and planning defenses. But millions of refugees, mostly from India, streamed into Iran by way of Pakistan, disrupting the plans and bringing infection with them. Iran and Pakistan could have collaborated to secure their mountainous border, but some in Iran's military considered the presence of Pakistani troops in Iranian soil an act of war, so this plan was rejected. Iran's military decided to bomb the Ketch River Bridge, which would cut off 60 percent of the refugee traffic, and Farahnakian flew the mission and destroyed the bridge. But in retaliation, a Pakistani unit attacked an Iranian border station. Though both nations' leaders were willing to stand down, neither had a way to contact the other, and so the conflict rapidly escalated into "three days of panicked rage" that culminated in nuclear exchanges. The casualty count from the blasts and resulting clouds of radiation were never known. The terrible irony, for Farahnakian, is that Pakistan helped Iran build its nuclear program.

Interview 7: Denver, Colorado, USA

Todd Wainio greets the investigator at the train station, where a mural titled Victory commemorates the recapture of New York City—one of many battles Wainio took part in. A former U.S. infantryman, Wainio is prematurely aged, "like most men of his generation," and angry about the incompetence of the early battles.

Yonkers is the Pearl Harbor of the Zombie War—the place where, despite military preparedness, the U.S. was caught off guard by an enemy. Or perhaps, Wainio says, it's more like Little Big Horn. The Great Panic had been running for three months, so the military knew the enemy would attack. Wainio guesses as many people had died from the Panic itself—from fires, shootings, and traffic accidents—as from zombie attacks. The military massed troops at Yonkers, north of New York City, to make a stand, notch a victory, and show the nation the government was still in control. Yonkers wasn't a bad choice for a battle site because a freeway led right to it—a choke point for the swarm. But the military didn't stage soldiers high, on buildings' roofs. They trusted instead to conventional tactics, digging in and piling sandbags for cover, as if the zombies might call in an airstrike. Every kind of military vehicle was deployed—"so much shit that only blocked traffic and looked pretty" for the press. The soldiers sweated in heavy body armor intended to protect against radioactive or chemical threats, with real-time GPS in the visors and constant communications. Missiles loaded with bomblets handled many zombies in the first small wave, but any that still had a brain kept coming, even crawling, toward the line. More joined, forming a mass that protected individual ghouls from the bomblets. Tanks began to shell the mass, but since only head wounds count with zombies, and since zombies had little liquid in their bodies to be disrupted by the shock blast, the shells had limited effect. Some ghouls were torn apart, but waves of others clambered over the corpses and came on. In the next kill zone, grenades, rocket pods, and other firepower were deployed, and Wainio thought nothing would survive. But the wave reformed and came on as tanks and planes expended their payloads. Wainio's line was supposed to mop up any zombies that made it through the kill zones, but they weren't prepared for thousands of moaning ghouls to reach them, and a million more were behind the early waves pouring out of New York City.

The soldiers tried to make every shot a head shot and brought down many of the dead, but they needed more time, more ammo, and less distraction. Through Land Warrior, the communication system, the soldiers could hear and see other soldiers panicking or standing their ground but succumbing and being eaten alive. A joint fighter strike was called in, leaving billows of smoke after the massive concussions, yet the zombies came on, burning and smoking, with hundreds of thousands behind the reach of the strike. The line broke, and soldiers and pilots deployed any weapons they had, any way they could, causing more casualties. Wainio took a round in the chest and was knocked down and then blinded by a flash bang, but his buddies pulled him to safe haven in a Bradley armored vehicle. As the Bradley retreated, something hit it and tossed it like a toy, likely the wave from a thermobaric weapon. These weapons form an expanding fireball that destroys everything it reaches, but when the fireball collapses, the vacuum can suck lungs out through a person's mouth. Wainio comments if the investigator ever sees a zombie with its lungs and trachea hanging out in front of it, that zombie is likely a veteran of Yonkers.

Looking back, Wainio can't deny what historians of the battle say: conventional warfare failed. But he blames a failure that reaches back to pre-technology wars: fear. Fighting is about which side can frighten the other enough to withdraw, but nothing scares zombies.


The seven interviews in this section explore causes of the Great Panic. The obvious cause—advancing zombies carrying a terrible plague—gets little treatment, however, perhaps because in the book's world, this information is common knowledge. Instead, the interviews draw attention to the themes of the enemy within and to technology as a symbol of false comfort.

In every interview, clouded, rigid, or panicked thinking leads to disaster. As the investigator puts it in The Zombie Survival Guide, "Ignorance is the undead's strongest ally," and unclear thinking inevitably leads to deadly mistakes. In this section ignorance, blind action, and misinformation are the enemies within and lead to many casualties. Readers see this in the mass exodus Gavin Blaire watches from his blimp. In their haste people carry pointless things with them and fail to think ahead to when they run out of gas. Their inability or unwillingness to plan, think ahead, and act on their own behalf dooms them.

The people fleeing to Alang in Ajay Shah's story similarly have not thought ahead. He himself didn't know he'd fled to a shipbreaking yard, not a shipbuilding yard. His story reveals other flaws in thinking as well. Greedy people see profit in the crisis, scooping up cash in what will soon be a world where money can't buy anything; many, it is implied, won't survive to enjoy their gains anyway. And Shah sees rigid thinking when one ship's captain announces no untouchables or persons of lower castes are allowed on board. "Who the hell still thinks like that" under such circumstances, he wonders. Yet people of lower castes obediently leave the line. Like the people on Nebraska's I-80, they haven't adjusted to changing conditions and are running on scripts of habit and custom. They are easy prey.

Another form of rigid thinking shows up in Sharon's story. The parents who follow their church's teachings slavishly are willing to wait on the "thorties," as Sharon calls the authorities, to help them. Failing that, they're easily talked into killing their own children rather than effectively fleeing to a safer place. When the Whacko later refers to the child mercy killings, he criticizes these religious fundamentalists for prioritizing their notion of "God's will" over sensible reactions to the crisis. Again, they're followers who allow others to think for them (except for Mrs. Randolph, who breaks ranks and gives Sharon a chance to survive).

For Maria Zhuganova and her unit, clear thinking is not the problem. They're alert and curious, and they consider themselves engaged members of a democracy. Their enemy is a secretive government and chain of command that exploits the zombie crisis to crack down on the nation. Their punitive actions, after Arkady's loud protest, clarify who controls information in Russia and where duty lies. The commanding officer who orders the decimation calls the soldiers "spoiled children" who expect democracy but aren't worthy of it. The other interviews that come out of Russia indicate the government strangled information to control its people. This is perhaps why, as readers learn in a later interview, they are easily led to comforting religious teachings during the war.

By contrast, in the scenario T. Sean Collins presents, the mogul he protects has plenty of information, plenty of time to do his research, and plenty of money to implement what he learns. Yet he falls prey to another human weakness: pride. Not only does he invite "pampered parasites," as Collins calls them, to move in for an extended party only he can host, but he advertises his achievements to the world, making himself a target. How he could not have foreseen the result of desperation crossing with class resentment is a good question, but, Collins says, perhaps his entitled pride is "like a switch you just can't turn off."

In Ahmed Farahnakian's case, secrecy and suspicion create the disaster that affects much of the world, killing who knows how many people and altering weather patterns such that winter comes early and lingers. And stubborn reliance on traditional warfare, coupled with excessive trust in technology, is the undoing of the soldiers at Yonkers. Todd Wainio becomes incensed when he thinks of the failure of military leadership to adapt their thinking to the new situation. He describes these leaders as "tight-assed, narrow-minded," and lacking common sense, so enamored of their weapons systems they think simply lining them up for a "propaganda smackdown" will reassure Americans. Wainio is well aware that, in a large sense, the standoff at Yonkers is a massive psychological ploy. Reporters were everywhere, and cameras were rolling for the great show, but the spectacular failure of the best machines the military had to offer, in the air and on the ground, "practically told [U.S. citizens] to kiss their ass good-bye." Nimble thinking, calm thinking, creative thinking—these human assets were in short supply during the Great Panic.

A note on Brooks's style: The seven voices in this section contrast sharply, especially in the details speakers choose to relate. Wainio, for example, speaks as a seasoned soldier, comfortable with details about gear and tactics and bonded to his fellow soldiers by loyalty and gratitude. His language is profane and colorful, in the time-honored style of war stories. He doesn't shy away from delicate subjects, describing zombies that stagger along in nightgowns, underwear, or "buck bare," with their mangled bodies that made him shiver. Collins, too, has a strong voice, full of disdain for his boss, who thought his wealth meant he deserved to live while others died. His descriptions of his boss's guests drip with contempt, from the "little spoiled whore" whose only achievement is Internet fame to the handler with the "Get It Done" hat who can't toss a grenade away before it explodes. One of the more unique voices is Sharon's. She can't fully tell her story—the investigator and readers must fill in the gaps—because she can't grasp it. She doesn't understand her mother tried to strangle her but can only mimic the action with her own hands on her throat as she gasps for air. And her memory of her mother's death is merely sensory: "Warm and wet, salty in my mouth, stinging my eyes." Of course these sensations belong to tears, too, so perhaps Sharon did, at one time, understand what happened.

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