The first thing Brooks does is set ground rules. Once infected and undead, zombies are essentially monomaniacal brains unmoored from brains' normal contingencies – e.g. a pumping heart, a digestive system, oxygen. Until the brain itself is destroyed, it will stupidly, relentlessly pursue human flesh, using whatever parts of the original body remain at its disposal. Zombies move slowly, with arms – if available – raised toward their target. If a zombie finds prey, it will moan; if a nearby zombie hears a moan, it will move toward the source and let out a moan itself. You see how this could escalate.
Then Brooks considers what a worldwide zombie epidemic would actually look like, and ends up at some scary and eerily plausible conclusions. Israel, ever vigilant and pragmatic, is the first to take the threat seriously, voluntarily quarantining itself and – we gather – escaping the worst of what would befall the rest of the world. The States, like most other first world nations, spends far too long in denial – and by the time reality could no longer be denied, the best scenario became to grab as many people as possible and fortify in the Rockies. Survival would require unbelievable sacrifice on a mass scale – as you read, keep an eye out for something called the "Redeker Plan," a truly terrifying idea that the novel treats with chilling matter-of-factness.
The "real-world" implications World War Z considers don't stop at the geopolitical. Chapters dwell on the economic, military, personal and psychological consequences of the zombie crisis. Deep down, I know how silly that is and so do you – but the book does not. That's its genius. Brooks also wrote The Zombie Survival Guide, a cute little effort that was similarly obsessed with details and specificity, but its tongue was planted firmly in its cheek. World War Z actually asks what the world would look like if the dead started to rise. And then it begins to answer the question. It's fascinating, thought-provoking, frightening in the sheer vastness of the events it depicts (there is an amazing description of what the epidemic looked like seen from a space station), and ultimately even uplifting.
The movie is set to be directed by Marc Forster, from a screenplay by Babylon 5's J. Michael Straczynski. Rumor has it that the script in its current form keeps both the epic international scope of the novel (key), and its "oral history" format (less key). The book recounts, in mostly narrative form, interviews with various survivors of the zombie war, whose stories slowly allow us to piece together the events happening around the globe. That implies a possibly awkward multiple-flashback structure for the film, but I'll gladly deal with that if it means the movie will retain the book's epic scale.
Forster recently announced that the movie will be delayed – there's still work to be done on the script, he says, and he has another project he wants to do first. I think that World War Z is too obvious a target to just die in development, so I'm fairly convinced that we'll see a film eventually. But the prospect of a long wait is discouraging. The zombie movie needs a good kick in the pants, and we also need a serious piece of apocalyptic horror – something like the first third of The Signal except even more ambitious, and at feature length.
Max Brooks' novel, meanwhile, is a treasure. That horror hounds need to read it is a no-brainer. But I think it will appeal to thoughtful fans of science-fiction and fantasy – or, hell, literature – as well. Its zombies don't just pine for human flesh, they upend the global social order. The great George A. Romero has ventured into this territory, of course, but never with a scope or ambitions this grand.