“I’m Just A Zombie Nerd” The Max Brooks Interview, Part One

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In 2003, Max Brooks published The Zombie Survival Guide ($10, Amazon) in an original run of just 17,000 copies. No one really expected he could sell that many, let alone did they ever dream it would become a best seller – not a book about how to survive a zombie attack. Oh, how glad we are they were all wrong.

Brooks recently reached one-million copies sold of his Survival Guide, and we got to sit down with the author for a marathon zombie chat on fear, social metaphors and why even George Romero thinks he’s taking this zombie thing way too seriously.

(More on Techland: Read parts two and three of our interview with Max Brooks)

Allie Townsend: Congratulations on selling one million copies of the book.

Max Brooks: In this country, yes.

AT: How did this all get started?

MB: It started with Y2K. It started at a time which most of my readers don’t remember. Most of the 20-somethings, they can’t conceive a time when oil was cheap, America was at peace and the biggest star in the country was Freddie Prince Jr. I feel like we’re in the 30s trying to explain the 20s, saying, “Yeah, there was a time when liquor was banned and everything was booming.”

During Y2K, there were all these survival guides coming out. And I thought, what about a survival guide for zombies? I went looking for it as a reader, not a writer. And I couldn’t find it. And I thought, I’m into zombies, I’m OCD and I have a lot of free time…

AT: A lot of people have said that book is really funny. Intentional?

MB: If there’s a joke, it’s on me. I was not intending to be funny. The joke is that I had the free time to write it. That’s the only thing I find funny.

I remember when the book came out they put in the humor section. The Onion loved it. Publisher’s Weekly loved it. They called it an outrageous parody, but I kept telling them, “Guys, I’m not as cool as you think I am. I’m really not.” I’m not that hip. I’m not that witty. I’m just a zombie nerd.

AT: So where does the fascination with zombies come from?

MB: I think the fascination with zombies is that they don’t obey the rules of monsters. The first rule of monsters is that you have to go find them. You have to make a conscious choice to go to the swamp or the desert or the abandoned summer camp.

AT: Transylvania.

MB: Yeah, and if you go to Transylvania, I have to sympathy for you. As a kid watching horror films, that was my ego defense mechanism. Well, there’s a giant shark in the water? I wouldn’t go in the water. It’s that simple. But zombies come to you.

AT: Growing up, where you a Romero fan?

MB: The first zombie film I saw was not a Romero film. It was an Italian zombie film. I can’t remember the title – they kept changing it every time they released it – but it was mixed with actual cannibal footage from Guinea. And as a 12-year-old who snuck into his parents’ bedroom to watch HBO just to see a shot of breasts, that came as quite a shock. Then I saw Night Of The Living Dead and thought, “Oh, there’s hope.” Then I started thinking, well, what would I do? Because in Night Of The Living Dead, they’re arguing. Do we go in the basement or stay up here?

AT: I feel like that’s all of his films. They’re not really zombie movies.

MB: They’re about us.

AT: And their plans never work.

MB: The irony is, in Night Of The Living Dead, they’re both wrong. Go up the friggin’ stairs. Come on, people.

AT: Do you find yourself critiquing zombie movies more so now?

MB: You know when you go to the movies and there’s always some nerd bag in the group who won’t let you enjoy the movie because he’s trying to deconstruct the reality of it? Well, that’s me. I’m the movie ruiner for my group of friends.

AT: I feel like I haven’t done that as much with any other movie, but Scream. I’m always shouting, “Don’t go outside.” And they’re shooting another, so I’m sure it’ll happen again.

MB: Right. Does it really need to be remade? Where there that many unanswered questions in the first one?

AT: Maybe it’s … actually, I have no idea who the killer could be now.

MB: How many times does Drew Barrymore have to get her throat cut? I think we’re done with that.

AT: But will we ever be finished with zombies?

MB: Zombies are apocalyptic. I think that’s why people love them because we’re living in, not apocalyptic times, but I think we’re living in fear of the apocalyptic times.

AT: It’s like the other year with the Large Hadron Collider. There was a small chance the universe would implode if they turned it on.

MB: And it was the same for the first atom bomb. They wondered if the atmosphere would catch on fire. Literally, they thought, “Will the chain reaction just not end?”

I think that’s why people are scared of zombies. Other monsters, you’ve got to go out and find. We’re living in times where there are these really big problems. We’ve got terrorism, economic problems, unpopular wars, social meltdowns. The last time we dealt with this stuff was in the 70s, and that was the last time zombies were really popular.

AT: People are proclaiming this a mini zombie renaissance, but were zombies ever really out of the cultural landscape?

MB: That’s the thing. When I started writing, there was nothing about zombies. It was all teen movies, which to me are scarier than zombies, but that’s another story. I think now, people need a sort of safe vessel for the end of the world. You can read The Zombie Survival Guide or watch Dawn of the Dead and then go to bed saying, “Oh, it’s just zombies.”

Try doing that with The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Nuclear war can really happen. I think zombies are safe. Zombies are manageable. You can’t shoot the Gulf oil spill in the head. I think some of these problems are too big and too tough to understand. What does the global financial meltdown of 2008 mean? I can’t explain it, and I sure know you can’t shoot it in the head.

AT: There are so many metaphors you can get into with zombies because they have no overarching characteristics.

MB: I think that’s what’s so scary about them is their lack of a middle ground. You can’t negotiate with them. They’re like a disease.

AT: Even the whole idea that zombies are like a virus. Take away the living dead and focus on the idea that there could be a virus as deadly as a zombie apocalypse.

MB: It’s terrifying that’s there’s a life form out there that you can’t negotiate with.

AT: So will we get our sequel to Survival Guide?

MB: You know, maybe. People seem to keep wanting more. I remember when the first printing of came out of The Zombie Survival Guide, it was only 17,000 copies and I thought, there’s no way. You can’t sell that many of something about how to fight something that isn’t real. That’s why I started doing my self-defense lectures. Out of sheer panic. I was going to sell as many books as I could. I said I’d go door to door if I had to.

AT: So, I interviewed George Romero before his last movie came out and I asked him how to survive a zombie attack, you know, because his characters never seem to make it out. He told me that was a question only for you.

MB: George thinks I take this way too seriously.

AT: That’s exactly what he said.

MB: (Laughs) And what does that say? That would be like George Lucas thinking you take space movies way too seriously. Well, George is all about telling the social metaphors and I think that’s what zombie movies that have come out after him have totally forgotten. Those are more about just heads being blown off. George is old school. He’s from the era where you have to use science fiction as a metaphor because they wouldn’t let you tell the real story. It’s like Star Trek or Twilight Zone. There had to be something underlying it. Like with George and the original Dawn of the Dead. It was all about the end of the baby boomers dream and surrendering to materialism. I think the old Dawn of the Dead should be put next to Easy Rider and sold as a box set. It should be called The Baby Boomers: Beginning & End.

AT: But I never got my answer! How do I survive a zombie attack? What if one came into this room. (Conference room on the 22nd floor of an office building.)

MB: Is there one zombie?

AT: Yes, just one.

MB: If there’s one zombie, that’s easy. There are three of us. One person becomes the bait. Then, the other two circle around, grab the zombie by the back and throw it out the window.

That’s the thing about zombies. They don’t adapt and they don’t think. Literally, you could have a zombie on one side of a chain link fence and you could be on the other side and they could be trying to get to you and six feet down could be an open door and they will not go through that door in the fence. That’s why they’re so scary. They’re like a flesh-guarded weapon.

AT: So, can I get you to clear something up for me? Sometimes I’ll find clips or comics where zombies are running. Zombies can’t run, right?

MB: We all know that.

AT: I needed official word. I’m not an authority. No one will listen to me.

MB: Zombies don’t run. They don’t dance. They don’t say, “More brains.” There is no Thriller Night. Those are stereotypes that are perpetrated by Hollywood, which I think is very irresponsible because it can get you killed.

AT: Speaking of, there is a lot of weaponry in the book, but not everyone is going to have a shotgun at home.

MB: As they shouldn’t. “Blades don’t need reloading.” It’s right there on the back of the book. We’re going for something you don’t need to reload. Plus, you’re going need a weapon that you can train with, something that looks remotely legal.

AT: Can I kill a zombie with a baseball bat?

MB: It would take a lot. A human skull is really hard. You’ve got to destroy the brain. You’ve got to hit and hit and hit. If you’ve got a bladed weapon, just chop the head off. Just don’t step on head because it’s still biting. So Birkenstocks are a no-no.

AT: Attire is also extremely important in the book.

MB: Tight clothes and short hair. You don’t want to get grabbed. Dreads are not a good idea. Footwear, no matter what, it’s got to be broken in. You don’t want to go out and get a new pair of combat boots the day before a zombie outbreak because the blisters you’re going to get are just going to slow you down and hurt your feet and then they’re going to get you.

AT: So my shoes probably aren’t the best, huh? (I’m wearing heels, seriously missing my Oxfords.)

MB: No, those probably aren’t the best runners. I don’t care what they showed you in Single White Female, you can’t kill someone with a stiletto.

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