For the few summers that I was interested in riding horses, my mom would occasionally arrange for us to borrow a pony or two and go for a trail ride starting at our friends’ stable in Renfrew, about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh near Evans City. I remember those rides being nice, lazy trips through the woods, crossing back over a creek several times, and passing through a Girl Scout camp. On one of these rides, my mom mentioned in passing that a cheesy old horror movie had been filmed close to where we were riding. I recall thinking that was mildly interesting, and that’s about it.
Sitting in an Intro to Film class at Pitt a decade or so later, I realized that the “cheesy old horror movie,” Night of the Living Dead, was actually a thoughtful social commentary. My mind was blown! It turns out that the horror genre is about much more than cheap thrills. Take the zombie subgenre: in the decades since Night of the Living Dead, zombies have been a metaphorical stand-in for racism, consumerism, and unease surrounding immigration; they’ve evolved the ability to run and think; and they’ve staggered their way into respectability in cinema and literature.
The East End connection (Romero and collaborator Tom Savini have both called Bloomfield home) makes a zombie title a natural fit for our third Book Buzz selection, and we’ve chosen Max Brooks’ World War Z, a thoroughly modern take on the genre and one of the best works of zombie fiction that we’ve seen in a decade.
Brooks is a man who takes zombies seriously. His first book, The Zombie Survival Guide, was a straight-faced parody of the “Worst Case Scenario” books that were popular in gift shops in the middle of the ‘aughts. In World War Z, Brooks pushes the “fiction posing as non-fiction” theme to its logical extreme by presenting a world-spanning oral history some years after the Zombie Wars, a worldwide outbreak of zombism that pushed humanity to brink of extinction.
The book is made up of dozens of “interviews” with survivors of the zombie apocalypse, both civilians and military personnel, covering the whole planet. Through the eyes of these witnesses, we see humanity struggling to survive a catastrophe that seems to have come from nowhere. As the AV Club’s Keith Phipps observes the zombie outbreak in the book
serv(es) as a stand-in for pandemic scares, Katrina, tsunamis, terrorism—basically any of the recent catastrophes that have reminded us how fragile civilization is beneath the surface.
As I mentioned above, the zombie-as-world-disaster trope is nothing new, but what makes World War Z so memorable is that, as in all great speculative fiction, Brooks creates a whole world for his zombies to live in. The level of detail is impressive, as Gilbert Cruz noted in his Entertainment Weekly Review:
With his surprisingly realistic takes on government inadequacy, disaster preparedness, and public panic, Brooks subconsciously references worldwide crises from 9/11 to tribal civil wars to Hurricane Katrina, producing a debut that will grab you as tightly as a dead man’s fist.
With the world coming to an end, what else can you do pull up a stool and have a drink with some interesting fellow readers. So please join us at Remedy Restaurant and Lounge at 5121 Butler Street in Lawrenceville at 7pm on September 17 for great conversation and BRAINS, er, food and drink.
P.S. I have a friend of a friend who hung out with Tom Savini at a party once. I’m sure everyone who lives in Bloomfield has such a friend of a friend. Anyhow, I’ll pay your tab if you get Savini to come. I’ll pay his tab, too.