World War Z | Study Guide

Max Brooks

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World War Z | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Max Brooks's World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, published in 2006, is an extremely popular work of apocalyptic horror fiction. Brooks wrote the novel to follow The Zombie Survival Guide, his 2003 book acting as a manual for a worldwide zombie outbreak. World War Z is narrated by a United Nations agent who is compiling a report on the damages of an apocalyptic pandemic that turns victims into monstrous, violent undead minions. World War Z received acclaim for focusing on the realistic impact such a catastrophe would have, discussing how governments, military forces, and citizens strive to combat the terrifying end-of-days scenario.

While there have been many works of zombie fiction over the years, World War Z stands out for its overarching approach to the apocalypse. Instead of writing from the perspective of a protagonist hurriedly dodging zombies, Brooks emphasizes the global effects of the outbreak, detailing how each country reacts, and how the zombie plague manifests differently between geographic locations. Brooks's unique approach to zombie fiction, as well as the cultural fascination with zombies representing the irrational, depraved side of humanity, has made World War Z a contemporary classic of horror literature.

1. Brooks was inspired to write World War Z based on an oral account of World War II.

Brooks is a huge fan of oral histories—historical accounts told by those who lived through the events discussed. He disclosed that his inspiration to write World War Z came from reading an oral history of World War II, entitled The Good War by Studs Terkel. Brooks explained, "I read [it] when I was a teenager and it's sat with me ever since. When I sat down to write World War Z, I wanted it to be in the vein of an oral history."

2. World War Z is a critique of American foreign policy.

Brooks took care to describe how the world's governments might realistically respond to an event as catastrophic as a zombie apocalypse. This overarching worldview sets World War Z apart from typical horror fiction. Brooks portrays the United States as leading a "sluggish response" to the outbreak and features an American soldier who blames the country's perpetual military expenditures in the Middle East as a key reason for the lack of resources for resistance. Brooks is able to subtly criticize American foreign policy by surmising how it may impact a fictional event, even one as unlikely as a zombie epidemic.

3. Brooks said his fascination with a zombie apocalypse started with Y2K.

Brooks's interest in writing about a zombie apocalypse began around the year 2000, when the hypothesized "Y2K bug" caused panic about the world's power grids and telecommunications systems suddenly shutting down, leading to chaos. In an interview with Time magazine, Brooks explained, "During Y2K, there were all these survival guides coming out. And I thought, what about a survival guide for zombies? I went looking for it as a reader, not a writer. And I couldn't find it. And I thought, I'm into zombies, I'm OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder] and I have a lot of free time."

4. Brooks has criticized certain works of zombie fiction for "cheapening" the genre.

Brooks prefers zombie fiction to be dark, gruesome, and genuinely terrifying. He's specifically spoken out against films and novels that portray the undead as inane or humorous. Brooks noted, "The Return of the Living Dead movies have sent the genre back to the dark ages. They cheapen zombies, make them silly and campy. They've done for the living dead what the old Batman TV show did for The Dark Knight."

5. The title World War Z was first proposed as a joke.

Many readers have praised Brooks's choice of title, as World War Z captures the global perspective the author portrays in the novel, treating the catastrophe as though it was as devastating as the world wars of the 20th century. However, Brooks originally intended to use the title Zombie War for the novel. The publisher didn't like this option because according to Brooks "zombies were seen as too niche and they thought some people might be turned off by that word." As an alternative, Brooks's agent jokingly proposed the title World War Z, and the name stuck.

6. The 2013 film adaptation of World War Z had several notable differences from the novel.

A film adaptation of World War Z premiered in 2013 starring Brad Pitt as United Nations investigator and protagonist Gerry Lane. The film was met with mixed reviews, with many fans of the novel left disappointed by glaring deviations from Brooks's vision. Perhaps the most notable difference was that while Brooks describes traditional slow-moving zombies, the film's zombies are much faster and capable of running. While the zombies' enhanced speed adds an additional element of fear, many felt that this departure from the novel was unwarranted, leading one reviewer to call the film "an absolute waste of its source material."

7. Brooks expected to hate the 2013 film adaptation.

Brooks himself was among those who weren't thrilled with the 2013 film adaptation of World War Z. He anticipated the film would be different from his novel and reportedly told the filmmakers to "go make the movie you want to make and I'll see it when it comes out." After watching the film, Brooks gave a pragmatic response to the differences between the two versions, stating, "I was expecting to hate it, and I wanted to hate it because it was so different from my book, and yet the fact that it was so different from my book made it easier to watch because I didn't watch my characters and my story get mangled."

8. Brooks believes that survivalism is the heart of American culture.

During an interview with the Washington Post, Brooks was asked why zombie fiction appeals so much to the American audience. He noted that the frontier mentality of the United States was rooted in the same type of survivalist outlook that a zombie outbreak demands. Brooks explained:

I think the survival element is VERY strong in American culture. We are a nation of individualists. We believe with the right tools and talent that we can survive anything. And sometimes that's right, but not always.

9. Brooks said zombies are an inoffensive way to talk about the apocalypse.

Brooks has been credited with bringing about a "Zombie Renaissance" in popular culture with The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z. When asked why zombies were so popular in fiction, he noted that they function as a safe way to talk about the end of the world—an abstract way to discuss the destruction of human civilization without touching on more realistic possibilities. Brooks explained:

Nuclear war can really happen. I think zombies are safe. Zombies are manageable. You can't shoot the Gulf oil spill in the head. I think some of these problems are too big and too tough to understand. What does the global financial meltdown of 2008 mean? I can't explain it, and I sure know you can't shoot it in the head.

10. Brooks is a former writer for Saturday Night Live.

Before publishing World War Z, Brooks wrote for the extremely popular late night show Saturday Night Live. Brooks worked on 40 episodes of the show from 2001–03 before leaving to focus on writing novels.

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