If you want to be lazy, you could say World War Z is a book about zombies and consider the book officially nutshelled. But if you want to be fair, you're going to need a bigger nutshell, one requiring a little history lesson. Don't worry: it's interesting history, the kind with zombies in it.
Back in the dark, pre-Internet ages of yore, an independent filmmaker named George Romero cobbled together a little horror film titled Night of the Living Dead. Released in 1968, it left an indelible mark on horror films and started the hugely popular sub-genre of the zombie movie.
The 70s saw Romero's undulating undead multiply in the form of a sequel, Dawn of the Dead, as well as some wanna-be rip-offs. Then the 80s drove the zombies underground as the stars of many a pulp film (Evil Dead, anyone?). With the exception of the Resident Evil revisiting-the-entire-resident-evil-series video game series, the 90s were simply an awful time to be a zombie.
Although, to be fair, the 90s were a pretty awful time to be living, dead, or undead.
Then the new millennium hit, and a lightning bolt of rekindled interest resurrected the ghoulish gourmets from their pulpy graves. The video game cup runneth over with the cannibalistic corpses. Movies such as Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later, and the remake of Dawn of the Dead returned the long dormant zombie movie to its former glory and then raised it to new heights. And like voodoo priests, writers began bringing the deadheads to haunt the pages of literature.
Enter Max Brooks.
Max Brooks's first foray into zombie literature was The Zombie Survival Guide, a practical how-to guide that kept doomsday preppers dog-earring pages into the wee morning hours. In 2006, Brooks gave us the current magnum opus of zombie literature, World War Z. The novel recounts the story of the zombie wars from the perspective of those who fought it and tells these tales in a series of vignettes written in an interview style, much like Studs Terkel's The Good War.
World War Z became a huge hit with critics, readers, and zombie aficionados. It sold over a million copies and spent four weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Its audiobook stars famous personalities such as Alan Alda, John Turturro, Rob Reiner, and Mark Hamill (yes, Luke Skywalker himself!). Oh, and it was also adapted into a movie starring some guy named Brad Pitt. And the cherry on this bloody, awesome sundae? The book itself is a pretty good read.
And that is how you properly nutshell World War Z.
To understand why you should care about World War Z, we need to first consider all the zombie stereotypes Brooks reworks in this novel. For example:
• You know how zombies shuffle about all lethargic and dead-like as they utter low gurgled moans? Well, in World War Z, they… they walk exactly like that.
• Oh, but you know how old school zombies desire a tasty morsel of raw human meat? Wait, wait, Brooks keeps that one too.
• Previously dead humans reanimated to semi-life? Of course.
• Must destroy the brain to put down permanently? Naturally.
• Pale grey skin covered with literally gut-wrenching wounds? You know it.
All right, fine, maybe Brooks doesn't completely rewrite the rules of the zombie genre. But he does change the scope of your typical zombie tale.
If you've ever watched a traditional zombie movie—let's say Romero's classic Living Dead series—then you've noticed that most zombie tales follow a small group of survivors as they attempt to do what survivors do: namely live. The government may have collapsed, society may have crumbled, and technology may have failed, but we only see scant examples of this because we're so focused on our little group. We have no idea how these things fell apart. They just have.
World War Z pulls the scope back and focuses on survivors from around the world, all with different perspectives on the zombie apocalypse. This vantage point grants us a full-on view of just how technology failed us, exactly why the government collapsed, and why our global society couldn't contend with those groaning ghoulies.
This scope lets us fully explore such themes as politics, education vs. superstition, racism, and so on. While most zombie stories have played host to these themes in the past, none have been able to explore them as thoroughly as World War Z. We don't just see how the government falls but watch the ripple effect of consequences spread across the world—both large and small.
And that's why we care about this novel. It's everything we already love about zombies, but in a bigger boat.