Notion of Civil Liberties in World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War and Outbreak

by Faith Lee


World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006) is a novel written by Max Brooks. It focuses on ordinary citizens around the globe, recording their experiences with the zombie apocalypse and showing readers how different countries reacted to the apocalypse differently. Outbreak (1995) is a film directed by Wolfgang Petersen. It follows the spread of a deadly virus known as Motaba in a small American town known as Cedar Creek, and the protagonist of the film Sam Daniels is sent to investigate the outbreak. The film displays the governmental power taken to control the spread of the virus and the public’s reaction to the new rules imposed.  

Both the novel and film were written and produced before the Covid-19 pandemic, yet are intriguingly able to parallel the pandemic because of the contagious spread of viruses in both texts. They showcase civil liberties in the West, indicating that the people have the right to speak, move, marry and identify without interference from the government (Nulman).

The novel World War Z is written in the format of interviews, where the interviewer goes around the world talking to survivors of the apocalypse. When talking to survivors from the West, the interviewer understands how the states handle the apocalypse and the thoughts of those who went through the restrictions imposed. While Outbreak also shows viewers the restrictions imposed, it emphasises more left and right-leaning ideologies, with some willing to let the government take an intervention. In contrast, others insisted on having their civilian rights and were concerned about the government taking over. The two texts thus posit a question about how the West reacts to governmental control with the existence of civil liberties. When a large-scale crisis like a pandemic or apocalypse occurs, the state governments must act accordingly. Since there is a substantially greater entrenchment of liberalism and liberal democracy in the West, civilians expect the government to react to the apocalypse in a way where civilian rights are still present. This article will discuss the suspension of civil liberties in the West, namely the restrictions imposed by the state, the use of military force to enforce those restrictions, and the public’s reactions along with left and right ideologies. 

Restrictions imposed by the state

World War Z illustrated a variation in how the different countries in the West reacted to the apocalypse in the beginning. The United States of America initially brushed it off as a virus like SARS and Ebola, thus imposing little restrictions on civilians. The country was also reluctant to impose quarantines and limit movement amongst civilians at the start because of the notion of civil liberties. Thus, there were no large-scale warnings or major lockdowns, causing civilians only to realise the seriousness of the apocalypse after zombies invaded their homes. On the other hand, Canada reacted to the spread of the apocalypse swiftly and seriously, shutting down its borders and imposing a quarantine on all Canadians. Cuba also imposed lockdowns, thus successfully preventing the spread of the disease within the country. Although there were strikes and protests, Cuba was still considered the most successful country in containing the apocalypse because of its strict restrictions. 

In Outbreak, the restrictions imposed by their state were unexpected because of the existence of civil liberties in Western societies. As the pandemic started, government officials realised the urgency to take the unpopular approach amongst civil liberties – impose strict restrictions on citizens to contain the virus. Cedar Creek, the primary town infected with Motaba, is under strict quarantine restrictions. Military vehicles from the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) are deployed to the town to prevent residents from leaving, even threatening to use violent force to forbid them from leaving the town. In the United States of America, the expectations of civil liberties break down because the residents lose their movement rights, and the actions of the government are going against what they think is the norm of being able to move freely, which in the case of Outbreak, is to get out of Cedar Creek. 

Military overtaking control in Outbreak (1995)

In Western societies, the state’s role is to protect civil liberty. However, this role is not fulfilled by government officials in the film because the lives of the rest of the American citizens are at stake. CDC even considers, at one point, obliterating the whole town to protect the whole population of America. The power government officials hold will be unknown until a large-scale crisis like a pandemic occurs. The government’s restraints on civilians will break the expectations of Western societies because of the notion of civil liberties. 

Use of the military to enforce restrictions 

In the case of large-scale restrictions like lockdowns during an outbreak, governmental or state power might not be sufficient because of the inability to restrict the movement of the entire country, especially civil liberties where civilians can protest because they lose the freedom to move. Thus, the government often uses the military to aid them in enforcing those restrictions. Using military refers to deploying troops or personnel to ensure that civilians obey the rules of the restrictions. It can sometimes involve force or weapons if civilians try to resist. Although the civilian government is still in more extensive control, the military imposes martial law during the restrictions. 

In World War Z, it is apparent that many countries in the West were hesitant to use the military because they understood the importance of civilians’ rights and liberal democracy. However, when it came to an extent where the country was unable to control the spread of the disease, the military came in to assist. Throughout the novel, Brooks mentions the phrase “last bushfire war” several times, and this refers to small-scale military conflict between groups of zombies and the military. Despite having large fighting forces and a strong military presence, the country still gave in to the zombies because the military became war-weary after the last bushfire war did not end with a definitive outcome. As America expected the outcome to be as successful as the Iraq war, this defeat hit the military, and governmental officials started to realise that the zombie apocalypse was going out of control, even with military use. In the novel, America’s military was seen as more of a hindrance than a help (Lanzendörfer, 2018), because the US government were unwilling to use massive military solutions to attack the zombies since it “requires Herculean amounts of national treasure and national support” and going against the notion of civil liberties. 

Military use does not necessarily only refer to military troops but also to military resources to create technology to tackle the zombies. In World War Z, the fictional character Arthur Sinclair Junior was America’s Department of Strategic Resources in New Mexico. Using military resources, Sinclair produced a new type of rifle with the idea of a resource-to-kill ratio (RKR). 

In Outbreak, the entire Cedar Creek goes into lockdown and restrictions, including force, are put in place to prevent civilians from trying to escape. Furthermore, the solution that the military proposed was to drop a nuclear bomb on Cedar Creek to contain the virus. In this case of extreme military use, civilians do not have a say in what the government officials plan to do, even in civil liberties. In Western societies, the lack of human rights would be questioned, just like how the focus and resources directed at militarised security rather than human security concerned the public because of the increasing social control they felt during Covid-19 (Vardi). 

The town of Cedar Creek gets surrounded by military officials and goes under complete lockdown

Public reaction

With the suspension of civil liberties in the West, not only will there be voices of the public protesting for their rights despite a disease spreading rapidly, but civilians will also take extreme measures to protect themselves and their rights. In an interview with Brooks, he relates his novel to the Covid-19 pandemic, stating that humans’ biggest enemy is panic (Wilkinson) and referring to it as the “Great Panic” in his novel. In both the novel and film, there were more right-leaning civilians because of the emphasis on individualism. 

In the novel, ordinary Canadian civilian Jesika Hendricks shares how she blamed the government for not being truthful about the apocalypse in the beginning and not educating civilians on how to survive. In the West, the state’s role is to protect civil liberty, so it is prevalent for individuals to learn how to tackle the zombies with their weapons. Two weeks into the apocalypse, Hendricks’s father was learning how to use his new rifle so that he could protect his family, and they had left their home in search of food so they would not starve. Since the civil liberty of civilians was protected, the idea of individualism was much more robust, where the government tried their best not to intervene so that civilians could continue to have movement rights. Fascinatingly, most civilians from Western societies were accepting of the government, leaving them to protect themselves because having no social constraints was more important than the government restricting their movements in a large-scale crisis. 

In Outbreak, right-leaning ideologies are more apparent because the film shows how civilians retaliate against the government’s actions taken against them. In one scene, two families try to escape the military-imposed quarantine imposed in Cedar Creek. The military chases after them and threatens to fire gun at them if they were to continue, but the families continue their escape and end up being burnt to death when the gunfire and truck engine collides. The idea of choice between individualism and the government is again brought up, with civilians choosing to find a way to survive by themselves rather than listen to the government’s restrictions because of the human and movement rights they strongly believe in. 

Civilians in Cedar Creek showing resistance towards the military


Both the novel and film attest to the notion of civil liberties in Western societies despite being in a global crisis. World War Z provides a bird’s eye view into the restrictions imposed and how the use of the military to enforce those restrictions, including the reactions of several civilians and characters serving the military to attack the zombies. Outbreak showcases the right-leaning reactions of ordinary civilians and the idea of individualism to protect themselves instead of trusting the government. Both texts allow us to rethink the more significant issue of moral choice: whether they want to insist on individualism or follow the military to protect them. 


  1. Brooks, Max. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. Duckworth, 2019. 
  2. Lanzendörfer, Tim. Books of the Dead: Reading the Zombie in Contemporary Literature. U P of MIssissippi, 2018. 
  3. Nulman, Alex. “What Are Civil Liberties: Definition, Role, Connection to Civil Rights.” Liberties. 4 Oct. 2022. <>. 
  4. Outbreak. Dir. Wolfgang Petersen. Warner Bros., 1995.
  5. Vardi, Sahar. “Are Governments Violating Human Rights and Civil Liberties in Coronavirus Response?” American Friends Service Committee. 25 May 2021. <>.
  6. Wilkinson, Alissa. “‘You Can’t Scare a Virus’: World War Z Author Max Brooks on Pandemics, Fear, Panic, and Hope.” Vox. 16 Mar. 2020. <>. 

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