kimberlee rossi-fuchs looks at the beaten to a bloody pulp fiction of max brooks
Shortly after I had watched the genius Shaun of the Dead, a friend recommended Max Brooks’ 2003 best-seller The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead as another stand-out in the horror-comedy genre.
While the book is stocked in the humor section of most bookstores, it reads as more of an instructional manual than a gag book. Laid out in seven chapters which aim to educate the reader on everything from Solanum, the virus responsible for the undead scourge, to which weapons and modes of transportation are best suited for man-to-zombie combat, the book is literally a how-to-guide on coping with the threat of the living dead. The tone is not at all tongue-in-cheek or aware of its own cleverness, but rather, the material is presented in a completely deadpan, straightforward manner and Brooks’ wit is drier than undead flesh.
Despite the fact that The Zombie Survival Guide reads as a manual – featuring checklists on important criteria to consider when choosing one’s primary zombie-fighting weapon and necessary supplies to stock one’s home with in preparation for a full-out attack – Brooks manages to keep things compelling and page-turning throughout and frequently elicit laughs. At one point, he wisely advises that when choosing a sanctuary from a horde of hungry zombies, the riot-ready, prison-like atmosphere of an inner-city school provides a safe bet “perhaps not for education, but certainly for protection from an undead attack.” The crude sketches scattered within the pages, including one depicting the perils of long hair in hand-to-hand zombie contact, are also hilarious and I frequently found myself laughing out loud throughout.
Even more striking that Brooks’ wit, however, is his attention to detail. Brooks has certainly done his homework and culls together bits and pieces of zombie representations from a wide-range of sources, including Romero’s slow, plodding corpses and 28 Days Later’s virus-created ghouls. In pulling from his clearly beloved source material, Brooks actually succeeds in creating the definitive zombie. After reading on the nature of Solanum, Brooks’ description of the zombie’s biology and basic nature (inability to reason, excellent hearing) seems totally plausible and his safety tips (cars run out of gas, take a bike) are realistic and rational. He presents this material in such a logical, matter-of-fact manner that the reader eventually stops laughing and begins to see a zombie apocalypse as not some horror film fantasy, but as very possible and likely imminent. worlf
Shortly after reading this, my husband and I found ourselves engaged in an earnest – and heated – discussion over whether it would be better to keep a machete or a Japanese katana in the house for protection. Whichever weapon you choose, however, you’ll be glad to have read The Zombie Survival Guide when the undead are clawing at your door. But for the love of God, please remember to destroy the stairs.
Immediately after reading The Zombie Survival Guide and rabid for further undead reading, I picked up a copy of Brooks’ 2006 follow-up, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. Although the subject matter is the same (the Solanumist zombies from the first book are the enemy here, as well), the tone is vastly different from the light, dryly comic one of Survival Guide. Instead, World War Z, set in the not-so-distant future, 10 years after the end of an all-out zombie apocalypse that had driven humanity to the brink of extinction, is a thrilling and often terrifying horror novel.
Brooks’ assumes the persona of a UN rep conducting interviews with survivors to compile an oral history of the decade-long Zombie War and weaves the book’s plot through these first-hand accounts. Laid out chronologically, the story begins with a doctor’s report of a terrifying early account with a possible Patient Zero in rural China. From there, survivors representing many nations and walks of life – civilian, political, and military– recount the growing panic, the massive and deadly spread of the zombie hordes throughout the world, and eventual cautious victory for mankind. Many of these accounts are fascinating, particularly the connected stories of an elderly, blind Japanese man, who relies on his other senses to slay countless zombies while wandering the Japanese countryside and that of a sheltered, teenage computer geek, forced to flee his infested high-rise apartment and navigate through the hordes of undead swarming the streets of his Japanese city.
While Brooks’ occasionally provides some much needed comic relief (the bodyguard’s tale of a star-studded massacre at a Hollywood compound is hilarious, as is the mysterious, post-war whereabouts of the entire population of North Korea), World War Z is mostly defined by the true air of terror he manages to create. Many of the survivor accounts are gripping and truly frightening, especially the one detailing disastrous Battle of Yonkers, in which the US military unsuccessfully faced off against millions of ghouls streaming through the streets of New York City. Even more scary is the fact that mankind is often a greater to enemy to themselves than the undead, as detailed in the heartbreaking story of the young woman who survived her family’s ill-fated escape to Canada, where millions were killed not by zombies, but by starvation, freezing temperatures, and man-to-man violence.
Much like Survival Guide, World War Z is meticulously researched – again, Brooks did his homework on everything from military tactics to global politics – and as a result, the stories within ring true. This realism is what makes the novel so riveting and even superior to The Zombie Survival Guide. World War Z is a fantastic horror novel and makes for perfect Halloween reading, but it’s so compelling that you will no doubt find yourself reading it more than once. Leafing through it at bedtime, however, might make you want to keep a sharpened machete in your nightstand, just in case.