Go figure, right? A zombie novel with the theme of fear, could things get any more unoriginal? Actually, it could get way more unoriginal because Brooks truly does some interesting stuff with fear here. Unlike a low-grade horror novel about cheap fears and thrills, World War Z explores fear as its central theme. It addresses many different types of human fears—and not just the ho-hum zombie fear of being horrifically eaten alive. It also uses fear to springboard into an exploration of human nature and government. This way, fear becomes more than just boogity-boos that make you jump in the night. It becomes the scary-pants glue that binds all the novel's layers together.
World War Z relates the zombies to scenarios and things that raise fear on a global level—for example viruses, war, plague, famine, and natural disasters.
The novel also explores the exploitation of fear as a survival tactic through such characters as Todd Wainio and "Break" Scott.
"We don't need no education; we don't need no thought control." Well, okay. But, we're thinking that Pink Floyd might have been less anxious to break the wall had there been a zombie on the other side. According to World War Z, an education is the most valuable resource you can have against the deadhead army. The Battle of Yonkers is an epic fail of a military campaign. Why? The higher ups didn't study their enemy, didn't educate themselves on zombie mentality, or lack thereof. The tide only turns for humanity when it learns from its mistakes, educates its populaces, and turns those lessons against the horde.
The zombies don't just represent disasters as hurricanes, plagues, and war. They also represent the end result of a society that decides to no longer educate itself—because they literally can't think. Get it?
The novel suggests that the greatest teacher is total warfare.
If you couldn't guess by a visit to our "Shout-outs" section, Max Brooks loves him some military-grade weaponry. But the theme of warfare goes a little deeper than just fancy boomsticks. World War Z dissects many different aspects of warfare. The novel focuses on the consequences war has on the individual soldiers who fight it. But it also enlarges the personal to show war's consequences on humanity as a whole. War damages societies, as it drains resources and unveils humanity's greater evils. But war can produce one good: people come together.
Although titled World War Z, the conflict isn't technically a war. A war has to take place between two political entities, and zombies have no politics—unless the even distribution of brains to snack on counts as a political platform.
The various effects of war suggest a conservative American political point of view. Russian, China, and Muslim countries (like Iran) don't fare so well—but Britain, America, and Israel all benefit from the war (well, benefit in comparison to everyone else). And Cuba prospers only because it adopts an American economic model.
Zombies hunt humans like animals. First, they follow their quarry for miles, then they corner him, eat him alive, and leave him to rot in the forest. But they're still only the second most primitive creature in World War Z. Human beings still get first place in primitivity here. In our desire to preserve our own life, or way of life, we're shown stabbing each other in the back, stealing, killing, and being all around jerks to each other. While self-preservation is by no means a bad thing—we do it ourselves daily—it does make us reconsider our place in the hierarchy of nature.
The Interviewer's descriptions of some characters tries to either lessen or heighten the primitivity of his interviewees, manipulating the reader into feeling certain ways about them.
Primitivity becomes a necessary evil for the characters to survive the zombie invasion, making the term almost irrelevant in World War Z.
Mankind has spent a healthy amount of its history trying to make its place in the natural world a comfortable one. In World War Z, a couple brain-craving zombies show up and undo all that hard, hard work. Like a hurricane or plague, the zombies knock us out of our civilized trappings, forcing us to confront the natural world on a level playing field. To make matters worse, our survival instinct has dulled so much that we're horribly, horribly out of practice dealing with nature in our day-to-day existence. Add to that those zombies we mentioned, and things aren't looking so good for us.
One symbolic purpose for the zombies is to demonstrate that we cannot escape the natural world. Although we may think we've protected ourselves from the natural world, we can never truly escape it because we're a part of it.
Once forced to rely on our natural instincts, modern-day technology and civilized society become more a hindrance than a help during a disaster.
We know what you're thinking. You want the zombie apocalypse to hit because it means you'll never have to deal with another election season again. While we feel for you, we now know the truth thanks to World War Z: politics will be just as, if not more, important when the undead finally rise from their graves. Granted, it'll be the failures of a corrupted government and inefficient bureaucracy that'll lead to the zombie apocalypse in the first place. But then we as a people will have to start taking responsibility for the government's failings and change the bureaucratic problems rather than simply blaming others. (But … isn't that the point of bureaucracy?) Only then will we score the triple win of beating the zombies, fixing—some—of the political machine, and ending the political bumper sticker business once and for all.
Although set in a modern era, the treatment of Russia in the novel shows that the politics of this world are still steeped in a Cold-War-era mentality.
The novel's scope is global, but its politics are a little more ethnocentric. Countries that do well in the novel are those with American-like political systems.
Racism has been important in zombie stories since the very beginning, and we don't mean people discriminating against zombies simply because they are zombies (a zombieist?). We can't really hold that form of prejudice against anyone. We mean that early zombie films like The Night of the Living Dead used racism as an important theme. Like, the idea of not working with someone because of his skin color just seems extra stupid when death is literally at the doorstep. World War Z follows this tradition but also builds upon it. Racism is present in the early chapters, and then the theme spreads out as the novel goes, brining in other forms of discrimination such as classism, nationalism, and, uh, genderism?
In World War Z, prejudice is present on all the economic levels, from the lower classes to the upper classes and across the global. It knows no social or cultural bounds.
Thankfully, if a bit unrealistically, it seems every character who suffers from prejudice manages to overcome it by the end of their story.
In World War Z, change generally comes in two flavors: tasty change, nasty change, and the occasional swirled combination of both. But the novel's consideration of change goes beyond labeling one type of change bad and another good. The real concern here is how people respond to change. Israel understands change is inevitable and keeps an eye out for it, preparing the best they can. As a result, they weather the zombie apocalypse better than others. Countries like Russia and America want to maintain the status quo, trying to fix the problem while also keep it hidden. This response makes an already nasty change worse. So, while change can be either positive or negative, the degree relies largely on the way we respond to it.
World War Z seems to suggest that our modern lifestyle makes dealing with change more difficult.
In World War Z, anything that brings about a negative change can also bring about a positive change, zombies included.
Shakespeare once wrote "the course of true love never did run smooth" (source). True then, true now, and doubly true once the undead being chomping their way across the globe. Love is a problematic theme in World War Z. On the one hand, love influences people to make decisions that have disastrous consequences, such as refugees spreading the plague to other countries in the hopes of saving their loved ones. On the other hand, love provides the impetus for many of the zombie war's heroes to do what they do. So while the love may have created the zombie war, it also helps bring it to an end.
Keep your score cards handy. If you tally it up, love ultimately proves a more deadly than beneficial emotion in the novel.
Interestingly enough, there are no examples of romantic love in the novel. People just don't have the time to find boyfriends or girlfriends that aren't undead creeps.