Really? A guide to surviving the zombie apocalypse?

The final book review in the zombie stage of my summer reading list has finally arrived. Max Brooks was again the author in question, with this book simply titled “The Zombie survival guide”. Not to rip off Ronseal or anything (sorry American readers, I’m not sure if ye have that), but this book really does do what it says on the tin. Actually, wait no, I’ve found a far more clichéd phrase-one should judge this book by its cover. Having been wrote before Brooks’ bestseller World War Z, this book gives a far more superficial look at the post-apocalyptic fallout that threatens us all if the dead reanimate.

That being said, superficial is far from what we get in all other areas. The book opens with a detailed look at what makes the walking dead tick (or well, what makes them not tick) in terms of their movement, hearing, eyesight, brain activity etc. As a pharmacy student, I found a lot of this material interesting, as not only is it hard to come by (ya know, ya don’t treat many zombies in community pharmacy these days) but it also ties up very well with concrete aspects of human physiology/anatomy. For readers less enthused by science, this section won’t stand out I’m afraid. Coming to the end of this section, however, we do get a good look at the classifications of an undead outbreak, and what signs to look for in the media.

The next thirty pages are more what the reader goes in expecting, with a full lowdown of all the weapons available and/or useful on commencement of the outbreak. Here we see Brooks got very creative, as his research obviously yielded cold hard facts about the drawbacks/limitations of conventional firearms or military based weaponry, but even outside of that he expands this section to give advice on combat styles, biological warfare and types of body armour. Anybody who has even dabbled in the infamous ‘zombie mode’ from the popular Call of Duty games would find this section more than enthralling.

Personally I found the next two sections to be the best in the book, as they again highlighted how far the writer was willing to delve into his work, but also could be extrapolated for use in other post-apocalyptic situations. The ‘On the defence’ chapter takes a comprehensive look at how homes can be vamped up for use as a defensive position once the dead come knocking. Not only does the author examine the different types of homes available, but he then provides tips for how to operate a defence in public buildings, such as churches, hospitals or schools. Given the outbreak is nigh able to occur at anytime of the day, you may find yourself relying on these pages more than you would have imagined.

The ‘On the run’ chapter then flips you out of the frying pan and into the fire-with its tips focusing on what your plan should be when the house-turned-fortress becomes a no-go. Because this section loosely resembles that of a doomsday prepper programme, it has its ups and downs. The major deal breaker comes in the form of how readily the advice can be applied, given the amount of money needed to create the standard pack alone would be dubious enough. That being said, the chapter does give a rather chilling view of the various terrains that will be encountered along the way, as the author succeeds in making the dangers of each jump right off the pages.

Next it was ‘On the attack’, a section I expected to pan out differently than it did. As it is, the major portion of the chapter centres on how to clear out different zones of infestation, as well as providing possible tactics as to how this process should go ahead. A lot of the terrain material gets repeated from the opposite perspective, and that maybe hampers the flow of the book. That being said, if we are to take this as a thorough guide, then I guess we have to call this repetition necessary, and maybe even important. As a final installment in the guide part of the book, we get advice on how to survive in an undead world, long after civilisation has collapsed and you are beyond hope of rescue. In this case, finding a permanent home is what’s vital, and so Brooks sets out to explore this concept, again using the terrain as a factor, but also looking at how accessible it is, both for yourself and those survivors who would wish to take it.

And so the guide comes to a close. The book however, stumbles on, its back pages acting almost as a prologue to World War Z, as in this section we get to examine accounts of outbreaks over thousands of years, and how these tie together. Here again, we see how Brooks can make a concept so surreal and unfathomable bite really close to the bone. Whether its asking what really happened to those ancient Egyptian bodies, or how did California find itself in the midst of a concerning outbreak, the stories champion all the good features of the classic zombie horror story.

And truthfully, that is really what Max Brooks delivers. For all of the ‘Dawn of the dead’ remake styled movies that now swarm in the film industry, these books are far closer to what we all identify as zombie. And that’s a good a note to close on as any.

World War Z without Brad Pitt

It’s very rare in the modern day to be able to read a book, watch it’s film adaptation, and still find no faults between them. Very rare. But here, after ploughing through an entire series of The Walking Dead books, the faults of which I outlined before both as a novel and as an on-screen version, I found a winner.

The above is actually incorrect, that is, in phrasing of course. I’d actually seen Max Brooks’ novel in the film version six months ago, long before Waterstones got paid a holiday visit from Kyle and his gift card. So when a quick google search informed me the movie and book were pretty much different in all but name, I wasn’t sure what I had got myself into.

The film World War Z stars Brad Pitt, who in the midst of a zombie pandemic finds himself shuffled into the deck of the world’s rescue team, which also features a globally renowned expert in viruses et al as well as the standard motley crew of army companions. Their mission is to go deep behind the enemy lines, to find patient zero and investigate how the infection operates. The journey takes them across countries which overall does try to encompass excerpts from the novel in as dramatic a fashion as possible. The portrayal of Israel is a good example that readers of the book could find a good parallel in. After that though, the similarities dwindle out. Most of the latter part of the movie centres on a World Health Organisation facility, where a plan for a cure begins to unravel. The climax is tense and overall as a narrative the movie successfully breaks into the ranks of respectable zombie films. This review will tend to focus more on the book though, as that’s probably where the real credit should go.

The most observable difference seen in the first few pages of the book on comparison to the film is the existence of the slow-type zombie rather than the fast-moving monster that is rampant in Brad Pitt’s world. Other than that readers would be surprised to see the book actually comprises a series of interviews, each skipping to different parts of the world and effectively examining the fallout of the “war” for people of all manner of class, gender, economic background and professional status. Even I thought this wasn’t going to work, with the skill needed to write a convincing novel made up only of interviews very hard to come by. But to Brooks’ credit, he whisks you right into the story from the beginning. The interviewer only intervenes to a point, giving the book room to flow, and so the pace isn’t hurt at all as mostly those being questioned are left free to describe first-hand what occurred to them during the apocalypse. However, if this was the only feature alone that Brooks employed, I’d leave the book thinking it was a solid shot at trying to convince the reader this had actually happened. What’s scary more than impressive, is that the author goes much, much further.

What’s immediately evident is the writer sticks to a set time pattern, with the novel’s early interviews revolving around the breakout of the virus, progressing eventually through survivor stories and the resulting fight back by the humans remaining.

The first twenty pages are an eerie look at just how terrifying it would be to come upon what seem like gruesome murders or abstract infections, the tone set by those interviewed (which of course the author controls) that all authority were completely incompetent, bewildered or out to cover up the true nature of what was going on. The writer breathes intelligence in every interview as he comes up with clever ways to get the virus on the move, such as cross-continent organ transplants or smugglers helping people out of quarantine zones. This helps quash the disbelief we all would have of “how exactly does this take over the world?”

Some of the best work is evident in the Israel/Palestine story. Of course, pre-war, this has its own political and social upheavals, so the virus only adds to the pool of problems the Middle East faces, with religion and military powers now coming into play as well. This is told from both sides of the Gaza strip, and from those both in power and those on the ground.

Once the plague begins to go global, the interviews shift to where the blame lies. At first we get glimpses of government officials discussing cover-up operations and attempts to avoid panic, but this also expands to give us a look at more interesting and obscure topics such as failed vaccine attempts and the embers of human-zombie contact on American soil.

The Great Panic spans a large chunk of the novel, and importantly deals with how humans became the losing side; a factor left out by most zombie movies where viewers are landed into the situation already after the government/society has collapsed. The tone here darkens significantly, and for the first time we begin to see the psychological implications of an undead world. Survivor stories feature a deranged woman, the fall of the army and the Russian side of the conflict.

After that we see just how big the fallout is, with stories of cannibalism and humans gone insane, either imitating zombies to their own demise or forming wild groups in the urban jungles. The book then takes the survivor cases in two groups-those still living in America and those located on other continents. Some pieces even go so far as to deal with life on the international space station, or life for a Japanese computer kid who is so hooked he fails to notice his parents gone for several days.

WordPress doesn’t have enough blog space to go into detail on all of the fascinating stories the author explores. As a result, I’ll focus finally on the last portion of the book, where I think the author succeeds to give the novel a lasting legacy. Here, during the human fight-back, we are painted a portrait of every aspect of the front line, whether it’s underwater, in cities, in Parisian catacombs or across the American Great Plains. Comprehensive would be insulting as a description, such is the extent to which it falls short in showing just how far the author’s research has prevailed. The ending is bitter sweet in most respects, with a lot of the earlier interviewees revisited to examine the aftershock. Realistically, if you took out the world zombie here and there, it really feels like the novel could have been the aftermath of any natural disaster. It’s less of a novel about zombies thriving, and more of a novel about humans clinging on, whatever for, and even then, remaining uncertain.

I would certainly recommend this on any summer reading list, if only for its merits in writing alone. Outside of that, the research, detail and difference in style the author brings to the table are commendable and go far beyond whatever Pitt and his friends were ever likely to achieve.