World War Z, subtitled “An Oral History of the Zombie War,” consists of various interviews from people around the world who were involved in the war in some way, all collected into a book by the narrator who wants to preserve these memories to try to prevent a crisis like this from ever recurring. After the war ends, the narrator works for the U.N. to write up a postwar report, and travels the world conducting interviews for it. However, after the report is published, he is disappointed to see that it has been heavily edited and much of the information that he had included has been left out. When he speaks to the chairperson of the Postwar Commission Report about this, she explains that his version had too many “emotions” and “opinions,” and they had wanted the report to be solely a record of facts. The narrator disagrees with her, insisting that “the human factor” is what connects people to the past, and without it, the report would be meaningless. The chairperson asks him to write his own book about the war if he believes this, which is exactly what the narrator ends up doing. World War Z is that book. The narrator notes that this “book of memories” tells the stories of the people he interviewed, and his presence in it is minimal.
In the first chapter, titled “Warnings,” the narrator meets an old Chinese doctor named Kwang Jing-shu, who tells him about his encounter with “Patient Zero,” a 12-year-old boy in a small village who had been infected with the virus and had reanimated into a zombie. The doctor was shocked to see his strange symptoms. The villagers told Kwang that the boy had gone diving into the waters of a dam and had resurfaced with a bite on his foot, suggesting that there were already other undocumented cases of the virus. When Kwang called his friend Gu who worked at the Institute of Infectious Diseases to tell him about Patient Zero, Gu immediately sounded worried, implying that he was not unfamiliar with this virus. Soon after, men in hazmat suits arrived and picked up Patient Zero and the other villagers he’d bitten, and imprisoned Kwang.
In the next sections, the narrator shows that the Chinese government’s punitive measures against the infected caused panic among its populace, leading many to escape from China and carry the virus all over the world. Refugees from China took the virus into Kyrgyzstan, where the Canadian armed forces encountered zombies. When they reported this to their superiors, they were told they were suffering from PTSD. Many people in power refused to acknowledge reports of zombies, and this led to the virus spreading rapidly. The first big attack by a group of zombies occurred outside Cape Town, South Africa, and because the doctors didn’t know what to make of it, they assumed it was a type of rabies, and the virus got its nickname, “African rabies.”
The first nation that gave serious attention to reports of the virus was Israel. One of its intelligence agents, Jurgen Warmbrunn, tells the narrator that this was probably because they have a “fear of extinction” and are always on guard. Warmbrunn and his American friend Knight wrote a report about the impending threat of the zombies and sent it to governments around the world—this came to be known as the Warmbrunn-Knight Report. Warmbrunn says that if more nations had paid attention to the report, they might have been able to avoid the crisis. To keep its people safe, Israel went into “voluntary quarantine,” a decision that the rest of the world mocked.
In the next chapter, titled “Blame,” the narrator includes interviews that try to answer the question of how the problem got so out of hand, especially in America. Bob Archer, director of the CIA, explains that they were working in a highly politicized climate in those years and that the government of the time used the CIA as political pawns, which made many talented agents quit in anger. His superiors didn’t want to hear about any problems, and when Archer had tried to discuss the issue of the zombies, he had been transferred to Buenos Aires as a punishment. In the next section, General D’Ambrosia explains that it wasn’t just the government that was against waging an all-out attack on the zombies—the American people, too, were wary of wars and would have never supported the idea of it. As Americans began to be more fearful of getting infected by the virus, Breckenridge Scott saw a business opportunity and began marketing a rabies vaccine as a preventative. He was helped along by a government that was desperate to calm its populace, and made millions in the process.
The next chapter, titled “The Great Panic,” focuses on the years of fear and desperation when large numbers of zombies began to attack people and wreak havoc in countries all over the world. Gavin Blaire, who used to pilot a blimp in the U.S., describes the heartbreaking scenes he saw from the air—of traffic jams on interstates and stalled cars, and hordes of zombies making their way through them. They attacked and ate everyone they came across, and after these people died, they reanimated and became zombies, too. Many people tried to escape on ships, not knowing that zombies could survive underwater. In desperation, some parents tried to murder their children so they wouldn’t be reanimated into zombies. The sheer number of refugees from various nations caused political problems, and led to a nuclear war between Iran and Pakistan. The U.S. Army tried to fight the zombies at the Battle of Yonkers, but were shocked to discover that their bombs and missiles didn’t have much of an impact on the zombies. While some of them were destroyed in the blasts, most of them kept coming through the fires. The soldiers knew that the only way to destroy them was to shoot them in their heads, but they were too frightened to calmly aim at the thousands of zombies that kept coming at them. Many soldiers were killed, and the rest were forced to retreat.
The following chapter is called “Turning the Tide,” and details the small successes that humans had against the zombies. The key to people’s success was the Redeker Plan, named after the South African who came up with the idea of creating a safe zone in each nation that would be inaccessible to the zombies. The government would retreat to the safe zone with some citizens. Many people were left outside the safe zones as “bait,” and also because the safe zones weren’t big enough for everyone. The plan was criticized for its cruelty because it abandoned large swathes of people, but it was the only solution in those desperate times. Philip Adler, a German soldier, was so angry when he was ordered to carry out this plan and abandon civilians that he wanted to murder the general who gave the order. However, by the time he reached the general, he discovered that the general had committed suicide out of guilt. Kondratiuk, a Ukrainian soldier, describes how their forces used nerve gas to identify infected people. The zombies reanimated and were easily shot—but, tragically, all the uninfected people died.
Next up is “Home Front USA,” which describes the American offensive against the zombies. Sinclair, who was director of the Department of Strategic Resources, describes how they provided job training in useful wartime skills to the refugees in the safe zone, and recycled old goods to make tools and weapons. Neighborhood Security Teams that were made up of volunteers helped ensure that no zombies made it into the safe zones. The famous director Roy Elliot made optimistic documentaries to boost public morale and give people hope that they would win against the zombies.
The next chapter, “Around the World, and Above,” focuses on the struggle outside the U.S. David Allen Forbes, a British artist, describes how ancient castles provided protection from the zombies to many people in the Continent. Barati Palshigar worked for Radio Free Earth, a multilingual, multinational radio station that broadcasted survival tips and information to countries around the world. In Japan, Sensei Ijiro killed thousands of zombies in hand-to-hand combat. A faction of the Chinese navy disagreed with its army’s ineffective strategies and formed a rebel force. They used a nuclear warhead to blast the politburo’s bunkers and then began to enact the Redeker Plan to save the country. The astronauts on the International Space Station, too, joined the war effort by maintaining and repairing satellites. The section ends with the U.N. passing a resolution to go on an offensive against the zombies and destroy them completely.
The following chapter, “Total War,” describes the all-out war against the zombies. Todd Wainio, an American soldier, describes the victorious Battle of Hope. The U.S. Army scored a huge victory against the zombies, which made them feel optimistic about the war. The American Navy also sent divers in special suits underwater to destroy the zombies on the ocean floors. In Russia, the army wasn’t as organized, and many soldiers were bitten in each attack, after which they had to be shot before they reanimated. In Paris, too, thousands of soldiers died while clearing the underground tunnels under the city. Todd Wainio tells the narrator that even though the U.S. didn’t suffer as many losses as some other countries, they, too, lost a lot in the war.
The final chapter, “Good-Byes,” has some people expressing optimism at the end of the war. Kwang Jing-shu tells the narrator he appreciates the fact that children who were born after the war are not afraid all the time. He is confident that China and the world will recover quickly. Sinclair, who has a new job now as chairman of the SEC, is also optimistic that the economy will soon be in good shape. However, other characters do not feel quite as good about the future. Jesika Hendricks, whose parents died in the outbreak, feels like she will always be bitter and angry about these events. Philip Adler is still upset at having to abandon civilians to the zombies and says that by doing this, humanity lost its integrity and honor. Todd Wainio tells the narrator that he still has stress-related episodes. By the end of the war, he’d been fighting for so long that he’d forgotten what “peace” meant.