Max Brooks' zombie fixation is so strong that it's almost as scary as the zombies themselves. Having previously released The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection From The Living Dead, a straight-faced manual about staying alive amid an undead plague, he's followed it with the world-spanning account World War Z. Brooks' acknowledgments conclude with thanks to historian Studs Terkel, zombie visionary George Romero, and John Hackett, who in 1978 wrote a book called The Third World War: August 1985. And he takes all three influences seriously.
In fact, Brooks treats everything about his subject seriously. While that may sound like a ridiculous way to approach a book about a zombie apocalypse, he doesn't miss an opportunity to let his readers hear echoes of contemporary woes in the moans of the undead. When an outbreak of zombie-ism occurs in the near-future of Brooks' novel, it takes the world aback, serving as a stand-in for pandemic scares, Katrina, tsunamis, terrorism—basically any of the recent catastrophes that have reminded us how fragile civilization is beneath the surface.
Brooks commits to detail in a way that makes his nightmare world seem creepily plausible. Whether chronicling the inhuman military measures needed to ensure human survival or the experiences of a feral child found in "the ruins of Wichita," his survivors' accounts sound like authentic, lived experience. The format, however involving, keeps World War Z from developing much momentum, but the individual episodes are gripping—particularly the account of a downed Air Force officer's struggle to survive in rural Louisiana. They're even moving: One lengthy chapter focusing on the military's anti-zombie canine forces could bring tears to a ghoul. It's far more affecting than anything involving zombies really has any right to be.
The same could be said for the whole book, which opens in blood and guts, turns the world into an oversized vision of hell, then ends with an affirmation of humanity's ability to survive the worst the world has to offer. It feels like the right book for the times, and that's the eeriest detail of all.