Zombie-Survival Expert Max Brooks

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World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

This past weekend at Comic-Con — the geek ground zero held every summer in San Diego — it was announced that Brad Pitt would star in the film version of World War Z, a book by author Max Brooks (son of director Mel Brooks) that takes the form of an oral history of a zombie war. Set to be directed by Marc Forster, who helmed the last James Bond film, World War Z is the pinnacle of Brooks' zombie-obsessed career, which began in 2003 with the publication of The Zombie Survival Guide. That book recently marked its millionth copy sold. Brooks spoke to TIME about all things flesh-eating.

How did this all get started?
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 Prinze Jr. I feel like we're in the 1930s 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 [obsessive-compulsive disorder] and I have a lot of free time.

Will we ever be finished with zombies?
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.

It's like with the Large Hadron Collider. There was a small chance the universe would implode if they turned it on.
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.

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

Speaking of which, there is a lot of weaponry in the book, but not everyone is going to have a shotgun at home.
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 to need a weapon that you can train with, something that looks remotely legal.

Can I kill a zombie with a baseball bat?
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.

Attire is also extremely important in the book.
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.

Are you done with zombies?
You know, I don't know. Zombies are so popular. There's a lot of chaff out there. For every one person who is legitimately passionate about zombies, there are a hundred people who are thinking, "Hey, I can make a buck off of this." The problem is that some of their stuff is so lame. Zombie hacks will write a whole book on one joke. They're not into it. You could waterboard these people and they wouldn't be able to tell you why they're into this stuff. If you literally took some of these people and put them in a room in Gitmo and said, "Tell me the difference between a zombie and a ghoul," they wouldn't be able to do it. "I don't know. I'm just doing Sesame Dead Street. Isn't that funny? Zombie puppets!"

When you were writing the book, how did you make sure the survival techniques were legit if you took the zombies out?
There's no substitute for real research. I had to find out how everything from how much water you needed to survive each day right down to the comfortable shoes. Any survival guide will tell you, don't buy a pair of combat boots before any disaster. They'll tear your feet up. Or water — don't bring water with you because it'll tire you out and you'll lose too much fluid. Bring a water pump.

Right now, is there a nation or group of people who could best survive a zombie attack?
Well, in World War Z, I would say that Cuba's in a pretty good spot. North Korea is probably pretty well situated to survive a zombie plague. Honestly, I think we are. I think Americans are at our best when we recover from a crisis. We've suffered some blows that other countries would have never recovered from. Any other country would have been knocked on its ass after Pearl Harbor, and that would have been it. We survived 9/11 and eight years of Bush and look what we dealt with. There have been many times in America's history where people have said, "Well, America's finished." They said that post-Vietnam.

Look at Obama and the fact that we live in a nation where a group of people went from slavery to the White House. No other nation has been able to do that. Suck on that, Europe. Oh yeah, you think you're so superior to us? When was the last time Spain had a Basque President? Or Britain had an Indian Prime Minister? Or France had an Algerian President? Or Germany had a Jewish Chancellor? We're really able to bust through our social taboos and get stuff done when it needs doing.

I feel like that's interesting because most would probably argue that Americans don't have the mind-set to work together and tackle something as big as a zombie attack.
I was in New York on 9/11 and I think we were amazing. The whole idea of a terrorist attack was to sow terror. New York wasn't terrorized. I spent the whole day going from hospital to hospital trying to give blood and the lines were out the door. The whole city was looking for ways to help. They were evacuating calmly, nobody was running around screaming, "Oh, my God, we're all going to die." And if there was ever a time to do it, that would have been it. Instead, the city came together and said, "O.K., what do we do now?"

That's funny, because in every movie, New York falls instantly.
Right. It's the first city to go. Look at the blackout that happened a few years later. Everyone was like: "Oh, my God, here it comes: riots, looting, race wars." No, but it was little bodegas handing out ice cream because it was going to melt. And maybe our greatest weakness is that we don't see a threat coming. While al-Qaeda is plotting and planning, we're listening to "Oops! ... I Did It Again." So we're not good at foresight, but when we actually do get punched in the face, we get up really quickly.