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Zombies: Come for the mayhem, stay for the social commentary

Book: "World War Z" by Max Brooks.
Book: “World War Z” by Max Brooks.

I just finished reading “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War” by Max Brooks. The book was not on my list for the Year of Creative Reading, but I chose it in order to see how the author presented his story as oral histories. Working in the history field, one of our primary sources of information is oral history, so it was interesting to see how someone adapted this form to fiction.

This is a marvelous book, with the author providing convincing voices for each of the characters, advancing the story of the Zombie War through how the oral histories are arranged. There’s The Great Panic, when the zombie epidemic started and governments were reluctant to deal with it. Then, there’s a point at which survivors adapt and find safe places to live, learning how to cope with the dangers zombies present. And, finally, governments and survivors get organized and decide to take the world back from zombies, creating weapons, protective clothing, and strategies for defeating them in a logical fashion.

I am not a fan of horror, either in film or books. Too much gore. Yuck. If you’d asked me a couple of years ago to pick “World War Z” off a library shelf, I would have said, “No how, no way!”

What changed?

I got the idea to design a workshop session on museum disaster planning using a zombie attack as the fictional scenario. That led me to learning what I could about zombies. The first movie I watched was the George Romero classic “Night of the Living Dead.” What struck me about the film was how much social commentary was included. While there was mayhem, there wasn’t a huge amount of gore. The movie was made in 1968 in black and white film, so if blood makes you squeamish, it’s a good horror flick to start with. In a stroke of genius, Romero cast Duane Jones in the lead role of Ben. What made this such a bold move, one that Romero didn’t initially see as ground-breaking, is that Duane is black and he has to deal with a zombie attack amid a group of hysterical white people in an era of race riots. At one point, he slaps a young woman who’s screaming her head off. Think about how that might have played to white audiences at the time. At the end of the film, there’s a scene reminiscent of a KKK hunt.

The best zombie movies and books engage in social commentary, whether with the larger idea of having your loved ones turn into scary, ravenous beings, the general breakdown of society, or class and race issues. (There is a zombie movie – Zombies Anonymous –  wherein zombies are considered second-class citizens and are treated poorly as a result.) It’s this social commentary that keeps me engaged in the zombie genre.

“World War Z” does a tremendous job at social commentary, delving into potential military strategy and how individuals dealt with leaving survivors behind; discussing “quislings,” people who identified so strongly with zombies that they took on the characteristics of zombies without having been bitten; showing how different countries managed the zombie attack; and touching on feral children, those who survived their parents and had to grow up on their own.

When you think about it, much of horror has its roots in some form of social commentary, from the fear of scientific advances in Frankenstein to Victorian sexuality as presented in Dracula. It takes the shock, drama, and gore of such stories to get people to pay attention to the larger issues of the day.