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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Zombie Survival with Max Brooks

In his intro to George Romero's zombie masterpiece Night Of The Living Dead, Max Brooks explained: "Yes, there were zombie movies before Night of the Living Dead, just like there were space movies before Star Wars ..."

Likewise, there were technical manuals describing how to survive hideous, unnatural apocalyptic threats to human survival before Max Brooks' "The Zombie Survival Guide", but...

In 2003 Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft - a legacy which I'm sure must haunt Max constantly, like some relentless zombie that just won't stay down) published "The Zombie Survival Guide", a meticulous textbook on how to survive in a world plagued by the shambling hungry dead.

I love "The Guide" (as those of us on the front lines call it) very, very much. I bought it for my girlfriend - now wife - hoping it would make her get serious and face the genuine threat closing in on us from all sides. She read it, and she laughed and laughed and laughed. I was ready to go machete-shopping. But I'll take what I can get.

World War Z coverMax's follow-up book, "World War Z: An Oral History Of The Zombie War" is now available for study. Last September, even before the book was on the shelves, the film rights to "World War Z" were the object of a massive bidding war between the production companies of Leonardo Di Caprio and Brad Pitt. Brad won - by shooting Leo's agent through the head with a speargun. That's the only way you can kill them.

On a gloomy Tuesday night a couple weeks ago, Max began the Barbican Centre's "Max Brooks' Festival of The (Living) Dead" with his brief introduction to the first film of the series, Night of the Living Dead. The film was followed by a Q&A moderated by horror film scholar and Time Out writer, Nigel Floyd. Copies of the new zombie book were available for purchase and Max was ready for autographing.

In a quiet half-hour before the evening kicked off, I interviewed Max Brooks about "The Zombie Survival Guide", about "World War Z", and about the horror, the horror of it all.

I asked him about the genesis of the first book. It thought it must have had its origins in American post-9/11 trauma. But Max had originally written it in response to the hysteria over Y2K.

Remember Y2K?

To refresh your memory: In the days before The Terrorists, and the bird flu - but after the Soviet evil empire - we lived day and night with the imminent threat that computer clocks would automatically reset themselves to the Year Zero at the stroke of midnight Jan. 1, 2000 A.D. If we failed in this task, banks would implode, planes would fall out the sky, and Tetris would fail to work properly. The next millenium would begin in a Age Of Darkness. Oh, our hubris! We had dared make machines in the likeness of our own mind, and one absurd oversight would lay low man and machine alike, for a long, long time. Or is that lie low? It's lay low, I think. Anyway, you know what I'm getting at. To avert the disaster, billions of dollars were exchanged among big companies and many computer experts were interviewed on television.

And "Y2K" stands for "Year 2000". Catchy, eh?

Max had been a writer of spec motion picture photoplays and believed that was where his future career lay. But year after thrilling year of sitting on executive couches hearing bulemic business majors say "We loved it. But it's not for us. What else do you have?" was losing its luster. Amid the Y2K ruckus, he wondered what the threat of a national zombie disaster might look like. With Vulcan-proof logic, he created a flawless handbook for survival in that emergency.

The book was a labor of love and, as labors of love will, went into a drawer and bided its time. In the meantime, Max was a staff writer on Saturday Night Live for a couple seasons, but still wasn't having great success with his original longer-form material.

The zombie myth rises from the fear that nothing in earth or heaven can stop an evil whose time has come. On the flip-side, nothing can stop a zombie book whose time has come. So one day, in a year when the ghosts of September 11 were still very angry, and a new Golden Age of Zombie Movies was beginning, and Iraq was making good on its promise of becoming a real slaughterhouse, a friend said to Max: "Hey! What about that zombie book? I really liked that zombie book."

Phone calls were made, manuscripts mailed to and fro, and "The Zombie Survival Guide" rose from its drawery slumber and was published in 2003.

Max had been training for years to write "The Zombie Survival Guide". He was a history major in college and an Army ROTC student. "Most of ROTC was basically survival skills," he said. It might as well have been zombie apocalypse survival school. He wasn't just making it up when he said that the M-16 was a crummy gun that was destined to be a liability when the zombies arrived. He had fired M-16's and learned first-hand why they were undesirable and what was the better alternative was. M-16 fans on the net are miffed at his appraisal of the gun. But who'll be laughing when the zombies come? Max also dipped back into his ROTC survival manual when writing the chapters on the zombie threat in various terrains.

Ah, the ROTC survival manual.

When my father retired from the Air Force, he taught Junior ROTC and we had several of those survival manuals around the home. It's a must-have for writers, by the way - particularly writers of adventure or action. Or comedy. In fact, I actually quoted directly from the "Mountain Terrain" chapter of the ROTC manual in the Mountain of the Imagination podcast. I finally sold my copy of the book a couple months back, before the move here to London. Was that wise? There are factoids I learned from that book that are still indelibly etched upon my mind. For example, in most Middle Eastern countries, though belching after a meal is good form, "breaking wind in public is considered a serious breach of manners". Also when you are climbing a mountainside, your body should be aligned with the force of gravity (standing straight up and down), not parallel with the surface of the slope (on your belly, in position for a fatal slide). And also, snow is a much better insulator against radioactive fallout than you'd think.

The ROTC manual is extensively illustrated with line drawings of military personal serenely coping with a variety of dangers. It is probably one of the best basic survival manuals in the world. Next to Max's book.

Knowing the ROTC book as well as I do, "The Zombie Survival Guide" is all the more enjoyable. You think, "He's got all this survival stuff absolutely correct! The zombie info must be accurate too."

But my favorite part of the book is the concluding section of "Recorded Attacks", starting with 50,000 year old rock paintings in central Africa depicting the walking dead with arms ravenously outstretched, to a 2002 zombie appearance in the Virgin Islands (where, coincidentally, Brooks spent a college year abroad). Most of the major historical periods and world cultures get their chance to do battle with the undead.

I love zombies. But greater than my love for zombies is my love for Roman history - particularly British Roman history. So, when you've got zombies vs. legionaries in Roman-occupied Britannia ... the only thing that could make it more sublime is if the legionaries had light sabers. And there are lots of Roman-era accounts of zombies in the book. In fact, I wondered when I first read them "Why so many? Hmm. Maybe this Brooks fellow just likes Romans. Well, good for him. Or ... wait a... could it be ... is it just because the Romans kept better records?!" So I asked Max, why so many Roman accounts? And he replied that it was because, yes, the Romans kept better records. Of course, the important lesson to learn form the Roman stories is that the discipline and training is the best defense against the zombie horde.

The new book "World War Z" in some respects begins where the "Zombie Survival Guide" accounts left off. It assumes a world-wide zombie outbreak and is a collection of first-person accounts of encounters with zombies during this period. The book was much more difficult, Max said, than the first, primarily because of the massive amount of research necessary. Not research about zombies - he already knows about them - but research about modern places, professions, technology, society in many different parts of the world. As with "The Zombie Survival Guide", the stories in "World War Z" will only be as effective as their factual, mundane details are. Most horror is based on the supposition that the audience will suspend disbelief. The goal of Brooks' kind of horror verite is to leave no room at all for disbelief. The wonderful result is either fascination, dread, or belly laughter.

He was inspired by Studs Terkel's "The Good War", a collection of personal narratives of WWII veterans and by the work of Ed Victor, whose 2002 book coldly examines the causes and conditions of a Third World War from the point of view of some far-future historian. Wonderful. Max Brooks is the Peter Watkins of the zombie world.

As if all these great zombie doings weren't wonderful enough for the fans, Max's next project is the adaptation of the accounts at the end of the "The Zombie Survival Guide" into graphic novels. People have said that writers seeking the best home for their stories work toward becoming tv writer/producers. But the best avenue, we are learning, particularly for those of us who like to write spectacle is the graphic novel. Later, during the Q&A with Nigel Floyd, when Max announced this plan to the pre-movie audience, a collective gasp of excitement filled the theater.

I asked Max if he was planning then on promoting "World War Z" at Comic-Con next year. He said he didn't know and confessed that he had never been to Comic-Con. I was shocked. There is, literally, no other event in the world with a more zombie-receptive audience.

To whom do I address my complaint? To Max's representation? To the publishers? To Comic-Con itself?

Guys, why hasn't Max been down to Comic-Con yet? Why is this? It's only the most important yearly event for horror, fantasy, and sci-fi entertainment in the world. Do you not want Max to do well? What do you have against Max that you are holding him back like that? I believe you're jealous. Yes, I do. I do believe you are. That is why you won't let him go to Comic-Con. I'll say it once: get Max's ass down to Comic-Con in 2007. And get him on his own full-on panel. Not one of those little panels. One of those massive Hall H panels. If you don't, then ... well, I can't be held responsible for the consequences.

It was a great night really. Great to meet Max and talk with him. Great to see one of the best horror movies ever made - maybe one of the best movies ever made. But best of all, I learned the most important fact I am likely to learn about my new life in here in London:

During Nigel Floyd's Q&A, an audience member asked: "Max, what is the best place in London to hide during a zombie outbreak?"

Max said without a second's hesitation: "HMS Belfast."

Thank you, Max, in advance, for saving my family.

Damn, I forgot to ask ...

... can we bring the cats with us?

HMS Belfast on The Thames


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