World War Z is a novel written in the style of eyewitness accounts detailing the horrors of a war against the living dead. The accounts are grouped into roughly chronological order, starting with the early signs of trouble, then the panic caused once the denial wears off, and on to the measures that different nations took to avoid extinction.
An unknown infection takes hold in China. The infected rapidly become inhuman, aggressively grabbing and biting family members and doctors, seemingly able to exist without a heartbeat. Anyone bitten becomes infected and quickly exhibits the same behaviour. Rumours that dead bodies are reanimating and spreading disease are treated as nonsense, people go about their lives as normal, governments tell everyone to stay calm. One by one, countries become inundated, the infection seems to be unstoppable, and the panic begins to set in.
Anyone who's seen Romero's 1978 movie Dawn Of The Dead (or even the recent remake) will be immediately familiar with the scenario. The difference is that, where the movies tend to follow a single group of survivors, World War Z takes the world view. Eyewitness stories come from all continents and piece together the struggle of mankind as a whole.
The eyewitness accounts explore terror, suicide and sacrifice, and the early tales are fairly horrific and genuinely frightening. Not because of the walking dead, but because the descriptions of human panic are so believable. If there was a sudden catastrophe on a national or global scale, people really would clamber over each other to get away, and Max Brooks excellently captures real fear in this fiction.
All of this is delivered in a completely sober tone, though there are the occasional digs at twenty-first century society: corporate greed, people smuggling, social isolation, and a bit of poetic justice is heaped upon shallow celebrity culture and reality television. While the earlier chapters describe the panic and carnage, the later chapters describe the fight back, and these are strongly reminiscent of accounts from the closing stages of the second world war. These later chapters can't hope to deliver the shock of the earlier chapters, but they do nicely construct a new world order.
World War Z is a great piece of fiction. It's impressive in its breadth, and its nastier moments conjure up mental images that stay with you. A great read for those drawn to horror fiction, and those who want to be immersed in tales of social and political upheaval on a global scale.