World War Z + swine flu = paranoia

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worldwarzFROM JASON’S BOOK SHELF — I might have picked the exact wrong time to read World War Z, Max Brooks’ geek-celebrated “oral history of the zombie war.”

I was raised in a deeply superstitious household that embraced Christian mysticism. One of the most basic tenets of Christian mythology is that resurrection from the dead is actually possible.

I’ve since shrugged off the shackles of that thinking in exchange for atheism. But no matter how much intellectual growth you experience, childhood religious indoctrination leaves behind a tiny, immutable nag in the mind that panics at the sight of religious iconography.

So you can’t help but jump and shiver and glance over your shoulder when dealing with tales of the undead. America being so thoroughly saturated by Christianity (76 percent of citizens self-identify as adherents), maybe that explains why we hold such a fascination with works of horror and supernatural thrillers.

I was reading Brooks’ novel with that baggage already weighing me down, and then reports of the swine flu hit the airwaves.

Now, it’s important to understand that one of the reasons that World War Z works is that it shows how real people would react to news that a mysterious epidemic is spreading. It portrays complacent characters who don’t react until too late; folks who discount media reports and underestimate the danger of the zombie plague. They disbelieve accounts of the living dead. They look for a rational explanation under the seeming supernatural tide.

And it all started off small, with reports of a mysterious, unstoppable disease spreading across borders. You can see why “swine flu” had my Spidey Sense tingling.

Compounding my Brooks-induced paranoia is an RSS toy built by our fellow Front Row Crew forum friend, Sonic. The gadget, called A.Z.O.N.S., or Automated Zombie Outbreak Notification System, is a gag based on the ol’ nerd joke about the “pending zombie apocalypse.”

I mean, any geek worth his salt has thought about what they would do if suddenly dropped in a nightmare world out of the mind of George Romero, right?azons A.Z.O.N.S. scours Web news sites for a list of terms related to said apocalypse. It analyzes them and reports “threats” to your RSS reader — in my case, to a widget on my iGoogle page.

Some of the key words it hits on are “strange disease,” “unknown disease,” and other medical terms. Guess what has its alarm klaxons sounding these days, right as I finish up World War Z?

I’m not honestly suggesting that I believe swine flu has anything to do with zombies. But when a work of fiction interlaces just so with real-world meta events, it can be enough to make your skin crawl. I did a literary double-take before I could settle down and remind myself that it’s just a book.

zombiehippyThat’s the beauty of Brooks’ writing. He makes the undead uprising seem so plausible. Sure, his zombies are the shambling, moaning ones. They aren’t the rampaging, quick-footed plaque zombies of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (which I really liked).

But that doesn’t make them cartoon-ish Scooby Doo apparitions, either. They aren’t for instance, the lovable reanimated clowns of ExtraLife artist Scott Johnson’s 56 Zombies Project.

They are terrifying and unstoppable demons. They are the traditional horde zombies that sweep down and close in, never stopping, never giving quarter. They are not afraid. When one falls, another takes its place. And every human they kill joins their cause.

Oddly enough — and here is where I was happiest with World War Z — the zombies aren’t the most intriguing part of Brooks’ work. They provide an excellent backdrop, but they aren’t the soul of the book. Like the very best plot devices, they are merely there to facilitate character stories.

In this case, the zombies are just the grind stone used to wear down the humans. The real genius of the novel is how deep a psychological toll is taken on the survivors of the war: They suffer everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to self-delusion, cannibalism, multiple personality disorder, and stunted cognitive progression.

Some, called “quislings” in the book, are so badly damaged that they are knocked into a dissociative state where they actually think they are zombies though they remain uninfected. A suicide pandemic strikes other survivors, while others are so hope-lorn that their minds shut down. They simply go to sleep and never wake up.

This is my fear for the big-screen adaptation helmed by director Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, Monster’s Ball): That it will be an action film and not a story of the human spirit’s breaking point. Perhaps Forster’s track record with thinking-man flicks is why he was chosen to spearhead the 2010 project. I can certainly hope that he finds the right angle instead of just cutting and running with another living dead gore-fest.

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