Sigma Tau Delta at JMU

The Popular Zombie Narrative Improved in World War Z

The Zombie Narrative has been popular since Haitians and the people of the Kongo came up with the idea of reanimated corpses sometime around the 8th century. Zombies are best known for their part in Haitian voodoo but made their way into mainstream media in 1932 when the film “White Zombie” was released (History of Zombies). Since then, zombies have remained an important literary genre. Zombies even have their own Wikipedia page citing their appearance in film, books or video games. Why is the idea of reanimated corpses so fascinating? One theory is that citizens of the 21st century have a collective fear of the future of capitalism and globalization which is presented and explored through the zombie genre. As Max Brooks, author of World War Z, comments,

“People have a lot of anxiety about the future…I think a lot of people think the system is breaking down and…people need a ‘safe place’ to explore apocalyptic worries. They can’t read stories about real plagues or nuclear war. That’s too scary…Zombie stories give people the opportunity to witness the end of the world they’ve been secretly wondering about while, at the same time, allowing themselves to sleep at night because the catalyst of that end is fictional” (Barber, “Why are zombies still so popular?” BBC).

Understanding and examining how zombies are portrayed can reveal how this fear saturates popular media, specifically within World War Z.

In Some Kind of Virus: The Zombie as Body and as Trope, Sam Byrand and Jan Webb explain the arrival of the zombie trope in contemporary literature. They explain that the zombie narrative works as a reflection of human anxiety, similar to what Brooks asserted. They argue that the zombie narrative addresses, “what it means to be a human being in the contemporary world: a world dominated by neoliberal economics, by globalization, and by the work of capitalist production…” (Byrnand 85). The zombies are a symbolic representation of what the current world could become, that is to say, that regular people could become zombies metaphorically through consumption. Zombies thus represent capitalism’s excesses. Capitalism is organized around a consumer-based society. But zombies are not organized and they consume every person in their path. The zombie narrative therefore contextualizes the problems of excessive consumerism. Capitalism can turn people into zombies in the sense that they will never be satisfied with what they have and that their hunger can never be satiated. The zombie serves as a symbol for the current stresses of the public regarding materialism and over-consumption. 

This assertion that capitalistic anxiety is the driving force for zombie’s narrative popularity seems right. Brooks, in fact, explores this very idea through his different narrative style in his novel.  World War Z uses oral accounts of the fictitious worldwide zombie war as a means of understanding each person involved in the typical zombie narrative. His choice of narrative form focuses on the individual experience amidst a collective epidemic within a zombie trope. 

The zombie is a powerful symbol, but it is not necessarily true that the audience or the reader understands its symbolism. The narrative form of the zombie is important and is examined in “We Are the Walking Dead”: Race, Time, and Survival in Zombie Narrative. Canavan discusses this problem. Although the zombie genre stands as a critique of society, the members of that society usually do not make this connection. Canavan states that, “The audience for zombie narrative, after all, never imagines itself to be zombified; zombies are always other people, which is to say they are Other people, which is to say they are people who are not quite people at all” (Canavan 432). This is the narrative problem that Brooks attempts to combat in WWZ. For Caravan, the zombie is supposed to serve as an example of the pitfalls that come with a capitalistic society, but members of that society do not necessarily view them as such. Canavan goes on to indicate the distinction between the zombie within the horror genre and the zombie as a global pandemic. The first version represents a critique of the individual and the second, of society, though Canavan thinks that the latter critique is never quite realized. He does discuss the problematic government portrayal within this narrative with, “Countrymen do not band together in the zombie crisis, and the nation does not have its finest hour; instead, allegiances fragment into familial bands and patriarchal tribes, then fragment further from there” (443). In such narratives, the breakdown of the governmental systems that exist in the capitalistic society is replaced with a more primitive version. This is one flaw in the zombie narrative. The zombie serves as an excellent trope but is either not executed well enough or the audience does not reflect on the larger meaning. Consumers of the genre do not see the critique of themselves in the narrative, especially because the zombie worlds depicted show a complete breakdown of the systems in place before a zombie takeover. In fact, these systems would not fall as easily as suggested. 

Zombie’s trope now appears in comic books, movies, books and TV shows, but as Cavavan discusses, these media sources do not actually convey the meaning of the trope well enough to audiences. For instance, Lauro discusses the zombie parades/walks that became popular in the early 2000s, in her novel The Transatlantic Zombie and particularly in the epilogue. She focuses her argument on these parade walks and the interest shown in them, and notes that these zombie walks were successful in many ways, but that “students might not feel it was worth their time to overtly demonstrate their disaffection with the system” (Lauro 192). She means that these zombie walks proved to be demonstrations against the censorship of American media of corpses and casualties of the 2003 war in Iraq. The Bush administration censored the showing of death and coffins so zombies served as a visual and literal representation of the American citizens who were dying overseas. But, the students were not as adamant about these demonstrations or invested in the war, as there was no draft unlike protesters of the Vietnam War, and people do not see themselves in the soldiers who were dying for them. The students did not feel a connection towards their fellow Americans who are being underrepresented or not represented at all. This illustrates Canavan’s argument that people do not see themselves in the zombie narrative, even though the narrative is about them.

All three of these articles come to similar conclusions. Byrnand and Webb explain the common use of zombies within literary and media outlets stating that zombies indicate the anxiety that many Americans feel today.  They see the hyper-consumerism that in the capitalistic society and they address these anxieties within the zombie genre with the zombie as the epitome of the consumer who will never stop eating/consuming. Canavan discusses the problem with this narrative. The audience knows that the zombie acts as a critique, but they fail to see themselves in it. Canavan, though, also discusses the expected failure of the governmental systems that capitalism provides. Lauro explains the importance of the form of the zombie narrative, agreeing with Canavan, and also indicating that the way the narrative has been portrayed makes a difference in the visibility of the zombie trope. Brooks’ novel, World War Z, propels these issues forward and resolves them. Brooks’ narrative form makes the audience feel an appreciation and connection to the characters and his portrayal of how all these different kinds of people interact with the zombie apocalypse places the individual within the typical zombie trope. Brooks’ narrative form of interview transcripts to indicate the power of the government in relation to the individual. This new form of zombie genre represents more feelings citizens of the 21st century are facing and how they can combat them. 

The narrative form itself sets Brooks’ novel apart from other books/movies about this zombie genre. The form is interview transcripts that, as explained in the introduction, were not important enough voices to be added to an official record. The interviewer uses this as the propulsion for his story and from the very beginning of the novel the reader listens to these “unimportant” voices. The narrator thinks all individuals are important, and their voices heard, so he publishes them himself. This already sets up the idea that people and their individual stories are important. Then, Brooks focuses on certain types of people and their reaction to the epidemic. Brooks discusses a typical computer geek, in this case, he is Japanese who feels like an outsider in his culture, something that every person can relate to. Then he tells this boy’s specific story, “Japan was doomed, but I didn’t live in Japan” (206). He felt so disconnected from his country and the people around him that he didn’t even feel like the apocalypse was real. When he discovers the zombies infesting his apartment building he says, “All I could think about was trying to escape again, getting back to my world, being safe” (209). Kondo feels such a huge disconnect with his world that he cannot even immediately think of a plan of action when he comes face-to-face with a zombie. He felt disconnected from the world around him until he was thrust into it, which is comparable to how the typical audience feels when faced with the zombie genre. This story of Kondo addresses those who feel so secure and “safe” within their own lives or in this case within the internet. The viewers have a hard time seeing themselves as members of the society represented within this genre, but in this individual story, the man confronts the zombies, who literally show up at the front door. This story serves to push placement of the self within this genre and explains an individual’s perspective. 

Brooks thus improves the zombie narrative form when he included individual and otherwise forgotten voices. Some interviews are complete on their own, and others are split up across chapters. In particular, Todd is a character whose single interview is split into four different sections of the novel. Typically, this interview transcript style of writing would not provide a space for character development, but here is an exception. This character development is the story of each person as they confront the problem. Todd’s first session is depicted early in the novel when he is a US Army Infantryman. He is primarily interviewed to explain the United States military assault on the zombies. This first section shows Todd as a macho-man and a typical army-nut. He explains the tactics and preparedness for the assault on Yonkers, and states, “Dude, we had everything: tanks, Bradleys, Humvees…” (94). Todd is a regular military man who was just doing his job when the zombies arrived. He explains in an informal tone the mistakes made, weapons used, and how he survived. It is when he comes back into the story that his personality starts to emerge. 

In his second appearance, he discusses the new army setup that aided the United States in reclaiming their territory. Todd is still militaristic and still calls the interviewer “dude” (277). But the interviewer takes the time to mention the setting change at the start of the interview with, “We have just finished dinner…Allison, Todd’s wife, is upstairs helping their son, Addison with his homework” (273). Instead of the macho, war-hungry army man, the audience is met with earlier, he is now a family man with a wife and child. The author goes on to give the names of his wife and child as well. They are recognizable as individuals who could feasibly exist today. Todd is not just a veteran of a failed battle in Yonkers, but now he is a husband and father who eats dinner with his family like the rest of the audience does. This shows character development throughout the novel as Todd returns twice more, but in his last session, he is the most powerful. 

Todd’s last interview concludes the novel and in it he discusses the present situation in his personal life. He says, “Yeah, I lose it sometimes, for a few minutes, maybe an hour. Doctor Chandra told me it was cool though” (341). Here we see Todd as more than just a husband, father, and veteran, but he truly is a person. He has morphed from the first glimpse when he was reluctant to mention his fear at all, but now he admits mental anxieties that remain even though the war is over and the immediate threat is contained. This completes Todd’s character and his development. He is someone that the audience can relate too if they are veterans, parents or anyone who has ever experienced a traumatic event, which gives him access to many different audience members. Brooks’ separation of different characters into different sections show development and the passage of time, which resonates as plausible. Civilization doesn’t just collapse. The novel’s form allows for a further understanding of the audience’s place within this narrative and to their own actions were they in character’s place. 

Brooks’ narrative also addresses the assumption, of Canavan, who proposes that the government systems that capitalism has put in place will fall apart during a zombie apocalypse. Brooks’ narrative not only allows for the reader to feel a kinship with the characters within the story, but the narrative also allows for an insight into the inner workings of governmental systems. Brooks is deliberately suggesting that the governments of the world will not fall into chaos but instead portrays the individual within the governmental systems as a stabilizing force. Where Kondo feels like an outsider, Ernesto’s story includes government officials and their motives for actions. The readers are presented with civilian stories, US Army stories, and government official voices. A conference is even held by world leaders when the panic dies down in order to discuss how countries could recover. Ernesto represented Chile as an ambassador. He gives a firsthand account of the conversations held by world leaders about how to help each other. He states that some countries sought retribution for past colonial and imperialistic conquests, but that this issue is not the most important. The American president suggests that the countries go on full attack to claim back land now infested with zombies. The president, who remains unnamed throughout the novel, states, “Yes, our defensive strategies had saved the human race, but what of the human spirit? The living dead had taken more from us than land and loved ones” (267). The president argues that instead of maintaining their safe zones, that countries should take back their lands for the sake of “human spirit.” He explains that though the human species has been preserved, the morale is what is important to get back. This is hopeful. Every individual feels a connection to his or her country. Without a physical home, human beings can lose what makes them uniquely human. Zombies represent the breakdown of capitalism, but capitalism is a unique human invention. It makes sense that the government would not fail under this breakdown as long as humans have not failed to continue to live. 

Brooks’ version of the zombie narrative improves the typical zombie narrative. Typically, the zombie acts as a trope for the failure of capitalism and of the dangers of hyper-consumerism. The forms of such zombie tropes are troublesome because they assume that the government will break down. The audiences consuming the zombie narratives also do not see themselves in the narratives, which lessens the impact the trope has on the reader. Brooks combats all of these issues with a new narrative form of the zombie genre. His setup of interviews with firsthand accounts creates an atmosphere of individual experience. Their personal opinions urge the reader to see themselves within the narrative. The zombie stands in a fear of the fall of capitalism, but capitalism is a distinctly human creation, which means that if it were to fall we would be able to bring it back, which is what the American president suggests throughout the book. Brooks took the zombie narrative and improved it. This allows for the zombie trope to provide critiques of capitalism throughout his novel because the audience understands their connection to the novel. 


Works Cited

Barber, Nicholas. "Why are zombies still so popular?" BBC, Accessed 11 April 2018.

Brooks, Max. World War Z. Crown Publishers, 2006. 

Byrnand, Sam, and Jan Webb. “Some Kind of Virus: The Zombie as Body and as Trope.” Body and Society, vol. 14, no. 2, 2008, pp. 83-98. 3 May 2017.

Canavan, Gerry. “We Are the Walking Dead”: Race, Time, and Survival in Zombie Narrative.” Extrapolation, vol. 51, no. 3, 2010, pp. 431-453. 3 May 2017.

“History of Zombies.” Anthropology MSU. Accessed 11 April 2018.

Lauro, Sarah Juliet. "Epilogue: The Occupation of Metaphor.” The Transatlantic Zombie, Rutgers University Press, 2015, pp. 187-201.

 “Zombie.” Wikipedia, Accessed 11 April 2018.

This paper was presented by the author on April 14, 2018, at James Madison University as a part of Sigma Tau Delta's Undergraduate Conference. 

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