When did zombies stop needing to be about something? They’re the easiest monster in the world to employ as metaphor, and they are so relentlessly uninteresting when they represent only themselves (cf. AMC’s The Walking Dead). And they’re not metaphors for sex either, like werewolves or vampires — a zombie is dead, and so it portrays Death, our fear of it and, most compellingly, our fear of how death rips away our loved ones and subjects them to decay, until we recognize them only with repulsion.
I approached Max Brooks‘ novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War a few weeks ago, seven years after its publication, maybe stirred by the movie (which I still haven’t seen). I’d paged through Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide, which was okay as a one-off stocking stuffer, but I wasn’t sure what to expect from a globe-spanning horror novel told by its survivors in retrospect. What would the zombies represent here?
On first glance: Nothing. The lurching revenants who kill, consume and convert most of the human race are just a vast, overwhelming enemy force to be repelled with special military tactics and equipment. Brooks likes his military porn: ordnance, armaments, aircraft, advanced logistics. There’s no survivor telling the stories one might expect to hear in a zombie tale, of having to kill her own reanimated children or behead his own flesh-hungry father to stay alive. That’s the meat of reanimation stories: how different the enemy has become, how much like us they are, how easily we could become them.
But because this is a geopolitical saga, the zombies become a metaphor without, I think, Brooks really intending them to. They are a metaphor for a borderless world.
Ground Zero for the zombie outbreak is China, which clamps down … but can’t prevent the flight of refugees and the international sale of human organs. South Africa adopts a rigid survival plan which was drafted by the white minority in the days of apartheid, just in case the blacks forgot to stay in their places. Iran and Pakistan nuke each other over the tide of refugees crossing their border. Those freaks just won’t stay put inside New York, the internationalist capital of the world, leading to a bridge-defending Battle of Yonkers.
What goes unmentioned? Africa as a whole. We know what happened to the fifty million people inside South Africa, but we’re left with no idea of the fates of another billion or so living on the wider continent. Too much of a minefield, maybe, when you’re writing an epidemic narrative with obvious AIDS allegories. What else is missing? Mexico. Survivor narratives are gathered from Canada, the United States, and some South American nations, but Mexico just mysteriously turns in to “Aztlán.” That name, by the way, comes with rich connotations for American right-wing nativists.
The zombies of World War Z represent the ills that befall us all when people just don’t stay where they’re supposed to, gosh darnit. They represent immigrants and refugees, any stateless wanderers uprooted from their homes and hoping for shelter in yours. Every good prepper knows those people — those Others, from Outside — are the real threat.
What else is going on: I’ve been interviewing Northwest writers and creators,
including Jess Walter, Charles R. Johnson and poet Kathleen Flenniken,
for Humanities Washington.
And a while back I reviewed The Newsroom, the World War Z of HBO dramas,
for Film Freak Central.