World War Z | Study Guide

Max Brooks

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World War Z | Total War | Summary



Interview 1: Aboard the Mauro Altieri, Three Thousand Feet Above Vaalajarvi, Finland

The investigator speaks with General Travis D'Ambrosia aboard a massive dirigible as the general monitors ongoing search-and-destroy missions necessary above the snow line.

When D'Ambrosia heard about the Saratoga Conference vote, his first reaction was "oh shit." He rejects the stereotypical image of generals as ready to leap into battle. In fact they understand how terrible the decision to go to war is. He hated the thought of ordering soldiers to fight the estimated 200 million zombies in the continental U.S. because conventional warfare wouldn't work against this enemy. Armies must be "bred, fed, and led," and each task requires massive resources of all combatants—but not of zombies. They don't need to eat (just to chew, to spread the virus); they don't need leaders; they swell their ranks with every person who survives an attack and reanimates. They don't even need air or water. They can wait out any siege. Total war has never been possible for humans for practical reasons. Humans have to sleep at some point, and they can reach limits of physical and psychological endurance. The very old and very young are liabilities, not assets, in total war. Some will refuse to fight; some will flee. The winner is the nation whose people hold out the longest, because people will break eventually. But zombies have only one directive, driven by the virus—to eat everything on Earth. They were perfectly suited for total war.

Interview 2: Denver, Colorado, USA

The investigator talks with Todd Wainio in his home after dinner, as his wife, Allison, helps their son with homework.

The army that prepared to take back the U.S. was a throwback in many ways. Most heavy vehicles were being retrofitted for the coming battles in cities; Humvees and armored cars carried the gear, and the soldiers walked, as soldiers have for centuries. The new battle dress uniform (BDU) was light and flexible, with reinforced thread to withstand bites, with gloves and a protective hood. Soldiers carried Lobos as well as their standard infantry rifles (SIR), weapons Wainio praises as tough and effective. The SIRs fired "Cherry PIES," pyrotechnically initiated explosive bullets that shattered when they hit bone and incinerated the brain, preventing transmission of the virus. As always, soldiers needed to be fit, disciplined, and adaptable, but these traits were just "mouse farts" if soldiers couldn't endure Z-shock. Some fell apart, killed themselves, or shot other soldiers. The soldiers that could stand the stress came from all walks of life.

The test-op took place at Hope, New Mexico. The troops approached on the offensive, silencing stray Gs so they could lay the trap. They set out brightly painted range markers and cleared brush. Then they had too much time to wait and doubt. When the K-9 handlers radioed contact, the soldiers formed their firing line—another throwback. The front line was active, the back reserve, with the idea of firing continuously till the ammo ran out. Wainio heard the dogs leading the zombies toward the trap; once the dogs were secured, the unit deployed its Primary Enticement Mechanism, loud sounds to lure zombies to the trap—in this case Iron Maiden blaring over loudspeakers. The sound helped soldiers get pumped up. When it faded, the soldiers got the order to fire. Soldiers fired methodically, carefully, and changed places with their battle buddy when they needed to reload, to keep the fire constant. As zombie moans called others to the trap, a barrier of corpses formed, and soldiers picked off newcomers as their heads cleared the ridge of bodies. Drones and periscopes kept watch as zombies began to approach from other angles.

The firing went on through the night, under searchlights, the "Cherry PIES" glowing red through zombies' eyes as they exploded. After about 15 hours of shooting, the swarm tapered off, and by dawn, the soldiers were surrounded by towering, thick walls of corpses. They had to bulldoze their way out. Another unit moved in to mop up and bury the corpses as Wainio's group marched ten miles east to bivouac. He hardly remembers getting cleaned up and into his sleeping bag. When he woke the next day, soldiers were laughing and talking cheerfully. For the first time Wainio thought the war could be won.

Interview 3: Ainsworth, Nebraska, USA

Darnell Hackworth and his wife run the last retirement home for K-9 Corps veterans. He's a quiet man who cares deeply about the dogs.

The dogs have never gotten the credit they deserve for their work. Initially, handlers simply took advantage of dogs' instincts to separate the infected from the whole, but the dogs' reactions to the scent of the virus could be violent. To take on other tasks, dogs had to be trained from puppyhood. Some came apart in the presence of zombies; others stood their ground. Of these only 40 percent completed physical training and advanced intelligence training with their handlers. Dogs learned to lure and herd zombies, to act as decoys, and to attract zombies in high places so they'd spill over the edge—the lemming tactic. Their main job, however, was to scout zombies during sweeps and patrols. Dogs could scent zombies at a distance and alert with growls and barks. The smartest could conduct long range recon patrols, scouting for miles as their GPS trackers sent back info. It was torment for handlers to stay behind, safe, while their dogs went into danger. Later in the war, radio relays allowed handlers to give the command to abort the mission if necessary. Hackworth's dog's specialty was sweeping cities; he hated to watch, through her camera, as she crawled toward danger. Smaller dogs excelled at this task.

Mutts were tougher than nervous purebreds, more able to navigate the risks not only from zombies but also from feral dogs, former pets looking for a little canine cannibalism. To deal with these the smaller dogs began to work with larger escort dogs that could chase off packs of ferals and even bring down zombies. But they had to be taught not to bite; the virus was fatal to them. Instead, they knocked zombies over to buy their handlers precious seconds. Still, casualties happened. Sometimes a dog could be rescued, treated, and get back into action. Handlers asked for vests with small explosives so they could dispatch a trapped or injured dog humanely when necessary, but instead of working on this gear, someone in the military suggested Fragmuts—dogs as walking bombs. The Eckhart incident derailed this project. Sergeant Eckhart, a senior handler, saw her dog fall into a ditch and break his leg. Zombies were near, so Eckhart tried to go get the dog. An officer stopped her, spouting "half-assed justifications," so she shot him. MPs tackled her, and she listened as zombies tore her dog apart. She was publicly hanged for her actions, which Hackworth understands, but the incident led to changes, as did suicide statistics. Handlers who lost their dogs killed themselves at high rates.

Interview 4: Siberia, the Holy Russian Empire

Father Sergei Ryzhkov lives in the smallest shack in a primitive shantytown, with no running water or electricity. His body bears testimony to many injuries, and his teeth are rotting. He explains to the investigator why Russia became a religious state again during the war.

During the war Ryzhkov was a chaplain with a rifle division. Their greatest assets were the piles of heavy weaponry left from previous conflict and the long Russian winters. Their equipment was old; their ammo degraded and prone to deadly misfires. They had no Department of Strategic Resources or military labs developing better armor. Instead of precisely calculated resource-to-kill ratios, they waged wasteful, costly battles with flamethrowers and tanks. City fighting was especially brutal because zombies easily outnumbered soldiers, and there were "always too many bitten boys." Unlike some nations the Russians had no L-pills, lethal medications for quick suicide. Infected soldiers had to shoot themselves before they reanimated because no soldier would willingly shoot another after the decimations, and officers couldn't bear the burden of executing their own men; doing so led to officers who collapsed in the field, drank to excess, killed themselves by bullet or combat, or deserted. Sometimes infected soldiers would circle up and commit mass suicide, as if to take comfort in not dying alone. But Ryzhkov, a religious man who believed suicide to be a mortal sin, refused to comfort them.

One day Ryzhkov went to a field hospital to give last rites to six young infected soldiers. He promised to pray for their souls; they were polite but not interested. Ryzhkov began to feel something strange within him; he trembled as the men prepared to shoot themselves. The oldest was counting to three so they could all fire together, but before he could finish, the youngest soldier flew back, a bullet hole in his head. Ryzhkov had shot him. He heard God's voice say, "No more sinning ... no more souls resigned to hell." Ryzhkov understood: only God's shepherds on Earth could safely bear the burden of dispatching the infected. His epiphany spread to other chaplains and civilian priests, and the ritual of Final Purification was established.

The investigator asks whether Russia's political leaders have seized on the nation's renewed religious fervor, sending out "death squads" to assassinate dissenters under the guise of purification. Ryzhkov denies any knowledge of this practice and refuses to say whether he broke with Moscow over it. A child comes to seek assistance, giving Ryzhkov an excuse to cut the interview short. He takes a Bible and a pistol from a wooden chest and leaves to carry out his calling.

Interview 5: Aboard USS Holo Kai, off the coast of the Hawaiian Islands

The investigator goes diving with Michael Choi in the Deep Glider 7, a sleek personal submersible. Choi is probably the Navy's best diver, and he loves his work. He's still at war, hunting some of the estimated 20 to 30 million zombies in the oceans.

Choi used an Atmospheric Diving Suit (ADS) during the war, before the glider was developed. The ADS was old technology that predated scuba, but scuba doesn't allow rapid ascent in case of attack and is suited to shorter dives than underwater zombie hunters need. Encased in a suit of underwater armor, divers had more protection from bites than scuba divers would, anyway. Later, Choi used a Mark 1 Exosuit, which offered greater maneuverability and was equipped with sonar, video, and other tools. Divers using the ADS had to grab zombies' heads with pronged claws and crush, but the Mark 1 was equipped with a firearm for use in shallow water. Guns for deeper water existed, but DeStRes deemed these too expensive until an incident around a natural gas platform in Norway drew a swarm of zombies. When the civilian divers refused to go back to work, the Navy found a way to pay for better gear. In addition to aiding with infrastructure rebuilding, Navy divers cleared beachheads ahead of Marines and reopened harbors for trade.

The glider reaches the ocean floor, where Choi points out dozens of zombies illuminated by the glider's searchlights. They reach toward the glider's sound as Choi tags each with a tracking dart. He'd rather kill them, but the mission is to study their movements and to understand why they don't disintegrate in the salt water or collapse under the ocean's pressure.

Interview 6: Quebec, Canada

Andre Renard's home has no locks or barred windows. He asks the investigator to keep its remote location a secret. Renard, who immigrated to Canada from France after the war, isn't afraid of the dead, but he wants the living to stay away. An angry, bitter man, he's rejected France's invitations for him to come home.

Renard scoffs at all claims people make about where the fight was most difficult. His battle, beneath Paris, bests all others. Paris's city center has few skyscrapers because the earth is too packed with tunnels to support them. Limestone quarries, bunkers used by the Resistance in World War II, and of course the Metro underlie Paris's streets, not to mention buried utilities and the catacombs (underground tombs). During the Great Panic, when information was still scant, rumors of safety in the catacombs spread, and a quarter million people took shelter there. But they didn't prepare for a long stay, inspect people for infection, or barricade entries. Soon, the catacombs were another home for the walking dead. Underequipped squads of men and women had to climb through the filth, stench, and darkness to locate and eliminate these zombies. Communication was unreliable, and no accurate maps existed. Even moving was a challenge. Dirty water obscured holes that might harbor a zombie, and sounds bounced from tunnel walls and ceilings, misleading and tormenting the squads when zombies moaned or soldiers screamed. Soldiers crawled to each other's aid, if they could find the site of an attack, and every zombie had to be killed in hand-to-hand combat because gunfire could ignite a tunnel's fetid air.

The soldiers improvised battle dress, mixing recent inventions such as bite-proof boots with chain mail and greaves. Still, their casualties were high; the catacombs offered so many ways to die. The summer brought heavy rains, which flooded some tunnels. At that point scuba divers went in; their casualty rate was so high all were awarded the Legion of France. About 15,000 people died trying to clear the catacombs and tunnels—needlessly, in Renard's opinion. In other cities like London, the process was carried out slowly and with far fewer losses. But France needed heroes. The Nazi occupation still stung; France's reputation was still at risk. Renard's brother Emil became one such hero for leading a small squad against 300 zombies that had reanimated in a hospital. He could have retreated and blown up the tunnel that led into the hospital, but he stayed and died.

Interview 7: Denver, Colorado

The investigator stands in the outfield at Victory Park during a game Todd Wainio's team is playing. It's spring, but no thawed zombies have been sighted, so everyone's in a good mood. Wainio talks more about the push to the Atlantic.

Army Groups North, Center, and South pushed east from the Rockies for three years to reach the east coast. The two lines reached from Canada to Mexico (a nation that, after the war, takes the name Aztlan). Step by step, soldiers scoured every inch of the land for zombies and called in a Force Appropriate Response unit when any were found. When one unit stopped to clear an infestation, a unit moved up from the second line to take its place. That way, the front line was never broken. Night and fog halted the whole line because operations required daylight. Other issues slowed progress, too. The Canadians and Mexicans agreed to protect the border, moving along with the lines, in exchange for help clearing their land later. And every major urban area put a stop to forward movement.

Wainio was with Army Group North, which meant zombies were frozen more than half the year. The job was to Lobo frozen zombies and mark them for disposal. But quislings and ferals were everywhere, and they had adjusted to the cold. Human Reclamations (HR) units attempted to shoot them with darts and move them to rehabilitation centers, but the ferals were fast and knew their territory. The HR units were staffed by volunteers who believed all human life should be saved, and though some died when ferals attacked, they did succeed in rehabilitating many people Wainio would have just shot. The feral animals, on the other hand, were worse. Dog packs were bad enough, but F-lions were truly dangerous. "Part mountain lion, part ice age saberfuck," they might have been descended from successful house cats. Rats, too, not only survived the infestation but thrived on corpses and were now large enough to be hunted for food, by humans and F-lions.

Every city had a few people who'd survived on their own and hadn't seen other people in years. Some were RCs—Robinson Crusoes—who could be talked into rejoining a community. Others were LaMOEs—"last man on Earth" types who fancied themselves kings in their destroyed towns.

All the Army Groups liberated isolated zones as well. Wainio's unit spent three days killing a million zombies to reach Comerica Park/Ford Field in Detroit, where people had been living since the Great Panic. Some military zones greeted the liberators with ceremonies and gratitude. Others were handling life pretty well already, living better than Wainio's unit did. Others had faced grueling challenges but didn't want to admit they needed rescuing. Wainio understood their need to brag a little. But in the civilian zones, people were overwhelmed with gratitude. Still, the soldiers did encounter angry citizens yelling, "Where were you when we needed you?"

Illness and injury were constant threats on the march east. Illnesses that hadn't been seen in years cropped up again, and medicines were scarce. The water and air were polluted, and rot was everywhere. Booby-traps and mines, many rigged by civilians fleeing west, were a constant threat. LaMOEs set up zombie traps that now endangered soldiers; Wainio lost a friend who triggered a shot-gun trap. Other soldiers succumbed to psychological distress and became Eight Balls, soldiers sent home under Section 8 regulations. An Amish man in Wainio's unit memorized every suicide note he found and made a little cut on his body for each. By the time he was sent home, he had cuts from his neck to his feet. Another seasoned soldier with many kills to his credit caught the scent of perfume from an overturned semi. Once he started crying, he couldn't stop. Other soldiers dealt with the stress by acting out in grotesquely funny ways, but Doctor Chandra, the company's psychologist, viewed this as a healthy outlet. He watched his soldiers closely. By the time he reached Yonkers again, Wainio was numb to the wreckage and human remains, but Chandra's smile assured him he'd survived.


The interviews in Chapter 7 call attention to the stark contrast between those suited to total war (zombies) and those who aren't (people). The conditions of total war are destructive in the extreme, and the survivors don't emerge unscarred. The interviews with Hackworth, Wainio, Ryzhkov, and Renard in particular demonstrate the breaking points of individuals, communities, and even nations.

When Wainio describes the mines that threaten the soldiers, for example, he explains why mines don't work against zombies. Their purpose is not to kill but to maim so a nation must expend resources caring for the wounded soldier. When the soldier comes home in a wheelchair, "Ma and Pa Civilian" have reason not to support the war. Zombies have no homes, no families, no ability to question motivations. If a mine shatters a zombie's legs, it will crawl toward people as persistently as it would walk if it could. Zombies don't feel the psychological effect of war, as did the man in Wainio's unit who dropped out of formation, entered a house, and sat down with a smile to shoot himself. He'd come home and couldn't bring himself to walk away again. One remarkable survivor is Andre Renard, whose time in Paris's catacombs and tunnels cost him his brother's life and his nationality. Renard eats lunch as he speaks to the investigator. He alternates between describing the catacombs in intensely sensory language—the rot, the stench, the slime, the gore—and calmly eating. His detachment, like his preference for the undead over the living, is eerie.

In The Zombie Survival Guide the investigator compares zombies' hijacked brains to computers running a simple program: find flesh, bite it, spread the virus. As long as the brain is active, nothing can pause or change the program. The brain doesn't require or even recognize input or record data; it merely carries out its orders. But people have emotions and memories. They hold grudges, and they hold out hope. So they can and will harm each other in moments of crisis, and they can suffer psychological damage. But memory of better days and hope for the future are also what inspire the "long road to New York" and other efforts toward renewal and rebuilding. Zombies will passively wait, on the ocean floor or in a fast-food restaurant, till they sense prey. People, fragile though they are, can at least choose to die or to struggle on.

A note on Brooks's style: The investigator adds footnotes that are helpful but also sometimes revealing. Supposedly, the footnotes clarify a term, add a statistic, or confirm a date, but they often suggest something about the investigator. For example in the interview with General D'Ambrosia, the investigator adds a note about the estimated number of zombies in the United States. Later data confirmed at least 25 million were refugees from Latin American trying to get to Canada—a wry twist on the controversial issue of illegal border crossings. And in the interview with Andre Renard, when the French expat claims the clearing of Paris's catacombs cost more lives than any other effort, "I don't care what anyone says," the investigator notes drily that the question of which allied force lost the most people "is still hotly debated." These notes pepper the book, sometimes simply adding a little information but often suggesting something about the nature of the project itself.

The interviews in Chapter 7 are fun reading for those who enjoy accurate, specific details about military equipment and gear because most of the interviewees are gearheads with plenty of expertise. The names and abbreviations of weapons, ammo, and vehicles would make a lengthy glossary, but the overall effect is to foster verisimilitude, the sense that these events could really happen or have happened. The persuasive success of the oral history lies in part in Brooks's attention to these details.

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