Reading Zombie Apocalypse as a Disaster Narrative

In our current era, zombies are usually portrayed as the product of infection. This often lends itself to a portrayal of the zombie apocalypse as a natural disaster, which intersects with the many discourses of natural disaster that permeate our everyday news and media. A Multimodal Critical Discourse Analysis (MCDA) approach to reading Max Brooks’ novel World War Z reveals that the author subtly challenges the racism and Eurocentrism that underlies many contemporary zombie narratives, in addition to the covert power encoded in the framing of natural disaster across contemporary news media. A linguistic analysis of this kind helps show us how the construction of disaster narratives can unconsciously introduce racism into our thinking.

The manipulative framing of news

The place we most frequently encounter stories of natural disaster is in the news, and it is the subtle language of these news stories that World War Z investigates and pushes against. On the surface it seems that there are many major news outlets in the United States and Europe that present unbiased news stories without any particular perspective, but the critical linguistic lens of MCDA pushes us to consider the significance of not only what is present in these news stories, but what is also absent. Using MCDA, we can understand how even so-called “global” news is framed from the perspective of American and European viewers.

For example, this 2013 CNN article reflecting upon the effects of the 2003 SARS outbreak on world travel is ostensibly from an international perspective, but it is clearly more invested in the interests of American and European travelers than anyone else. The article chooses to devote more time to Hong Kong officials’ delayed response to reporters’ queries than to the actual preventative measures taken by those officials. By emphasizing the salience of the silence of Hong Kong officials, the article portrays them as untrustworthy while linguistically representing the White businessmen and officials also interviewed as competent and trustworthy.

The consequence of this Eurocentrism is that when suffering in a non-Western country occurs because of a disaster, it is rarely presented as urgent or immediately relevant because “we”—the Western audience—are not directly suffering1. Instead, the urgency comes either through concern with how this disaster may inconvenience Westerners’ lifestyles (such as through an increase in immigrating refugees or a shortage of imported goods), or through a voyeuristic form of pity that is cathartic for the Western audience but is not quite equivalent to true empathy2. In fact, this may actually increase the apathy of White people and covertly deemphasize the personhood of people of color.

The framing of apocalypse within World War Z

The novel World War Z portrays the zombie apocalypse through a disparate series of oral narratives from ordinary, fictional people across the world. Max Brooks’ depiction of the global consequences of the zombie infection easily falls into the category of a disaster narrative3. Unlike the one-directional framing of Western news, Brooks’ polyvocal narrative places African, Asian, and Latin American characters on equal footing with their European and White counterparts by presenting their stories in the same direct manner. To use theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of double-voiced discourse within a novel, Brooks allows the authorial voice to blend seamlessly with the voices of the individual characters, lending those voices equal authority.

Additionally, non-White characters in the novel are represented as actors and active participants rather than subjects and passive participants. This contrasts with trends in actual news reporting where, for example, European news articles about natural disasters such as Ebola or earthquakes in African countries represent Africans as passive subjects and Europeans and Whites as active agents4.

Overall, World War Z’s encouragement of genuine empathy in its readers through the process of identifying with and embodying a fictional narrator counteracts the distant pity produced by standard news narratives of disaster. For example, when Brooks depicts Indian refugees (of India) desperately escaping by sea near the beginning of the novel, he replaces the passive, distant descriptions of refugees on boats we are accustomed to in news media with an oral testimony from one of the survivors. “A lot of fishermen and small boat owners who could have simply escaped with their families chose to put themselves in danger by continuing to return to shore,” the survivor explains5. This excerpt, in particular, also discursively centers the efforts of India’s people to save one another; no outside saviour required.

Moments like these in Brooks’ text place people of color in positions of agency rather than in circumstances that de-individualize and dehumanize them. Moreover, people of color are presented through scenes of reflection and emotional depth, such as when the doctor Kwang Jingshu reflects on the state of the world at the end of the novel:

“It’s comforting to see children again, I mean those who were born after the war, real children who know nothing but a world that includes the living dead. They know not to play near water, not to go out alone or after dark in the spring or summer. They don’t know to be afraid, and that is the greatest gift, the only gift we can leave to them.” 6

Confronting the immediacy of disaster

Max Brooks’ work is deeply concerned with the consequences of Western countries perceiving worldwide natural disaster as anything less than an immediate issue. To this end, a significant portion of the novel is devoted to portraying sheltered suburban Americans’ slow, horrifying realization that they will not be left unharmed by the zombie disease originally named “African rabies” by Western media outlets described in the novel. Although Brooks mentions the Chinese government’s mishandling of the contagion, he places special emphasis on the fact that the disease would never have decimated the U.S. and U.K., or even spread there at all, if White Americans and Europeans had not refused to acknowledge that the problems of people of color were legitimate, beyond racialized conceptions of contagion and global pandemic. In the novel, the U.S. chief of staff defends his decision not to act decisively on behalf of the emerging epidemic:

“We got dozens of these reports a week… all of them claiming their particular boogeyman was ‘the greatest threat to human existence.’ C’mon! Can you imagine what America would have been like if the federal government slammed on the brakes every time some paranoid crackpot cried ‘wolf’ or ‘global warming’ or ‘living dead’? Please.” 7

This is especially relevant as contemporary news media often emphasizes the incompetence of non-Western governments in handling natural disasters. The incompetence of others is typically addressed without critiquing Euro-American governments’ own problematic orientations to the management and eradication of local and global infectious disease or natural disasters8, as with the 2013 CNN article discussed previously.

Conclusion: A partial escape

Its substantive critiques notwithstanding, World War Z is not always able to elude the racism that permeates our everyday culture in the West. The narrative itself centers on North America, with events occurring in the United States comprising a solid segment of the novel. Brooks also occasionally falls prey to Orientalism and sexism: For example, the only two Japanese characters who offer oral testimony are characterized more by their Japanese-ness than are American characters characterized by their American-ness.

Despite these missteps, Brooks presents a convincing challenge to the covert racism of disaster narratives in news and zombie media. His work encourages us to examine the ramifications of how language, and the stories constructed through language, influence our choices, our lives, and our survival.

  1. Stijn Toye, “News discourses on distant suffering: a Critical Discourse Analysis of the 2003 SARS outbreak,” Discourse & Society 21, No. 5 (2004): 587.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Max Brooks, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006).

  4. Heather Jean Brookes, “‘Suit, tie and a touch of juju’—the ideological construction of Africa: a critical discourse analysis of news on Africa in the British press,” Discourse & Society 6, No. 4 (1995), 475-479.

  5. Brooks 72.

  6. Brooks 335.

  7. Brooks 59.

  8. Toye 576-578.