Grab the shotgun and cover your cranium: We talk to Max Brooks about selling 1 million copies of 'The Zombie Survival Guide'
Max Brooks’ 2003 public-service book The Zombie Survival Guide has recently sold its millionth copy, meaning there are still approximately 299 million Americans out there who will be devoured like so much pot roast once the undead apocalypse begins. Brooks, a former Saturday Night Live writer and the son of comedy legend Mel Brooks, has become one of the nation’s foremost experts on zombies thanks to works like 2006’s World War Z. In honor of this achievement, we spoke with the 38-year-old author about why the creatures are so scary, why vampires aren’t anymore, and how to protect your brains.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First of all, congratulations on selling 1 million copies.
MAX BROOKS: I’m still trying to track down the warehouse where my father bought all those books.
I’ve seen other people with it. My brother has two copies. So those are at least two that your dad didn’t buy.
Someone once actually stole a copy from my dad. He was in a bookstore in New York and he was in line and he set it down to get something else. When he came back, it was gone. Someone had taken it. So that’s another one. That’s three.
When it was first published, the initial printing was only around 18,000 copies, right?
Something like that, which scared the frak out of me. I was like, 18,000? That’s, like, half of Dodgers Stadium, I can’t sell that many books! That’s when I started doing my self-defense lectures. It was mainly out of panic. I thought maybe if I do those, I can sell a couple hundred at a time and avoid the two-cent bin.
Little did you know…
Then it just kept going. And no one was more surprised than me.
Did it explode right off the bat or was it a slow burn?
It was a very slow burn. Because initially when it came out nobody knew what to make of it. At first, it was billed as a comedy book, and it had to find its audience. Because the comedy crowd, they read it and they were like, “Yeah, it’s funny for the first couple of pages, but I get it. You don’t have to write a whole book.” So they didn’t get it. When I got the galley copies, I was still working at SNL. I remember one of the writers went, “This looks cool,” and he picked it up and started reading. Then he looks at me surprised and was like, “This is a real book!” And I was like, “Yes! Yes! That’s the point.” And the horror-science fiction fans initially didn’t want to touch it because they thought I was pissing all over them. So I had to seek that world out and I went to Fangoria hat in hand, saying, ‘Please give me an interview and let me prove that I’m actually one of you.’ I think that was what started to turn it around, reaching out to the market that I initially wrote it for. At first, people didn’t really go for it. The L.A. Times reamed me out; the guy who did the review just didn’t have any idea what he was reading. And Rue Morgue didn’t like it. They thought Mel Brooks’ son, who wrote for SNL, who was some witty, flashy brat, was basically urinating on everything that they knew and loved.
When did you write it?
Years before it got published. I wrote it in 1999, and I stuck it in a drawer.
How did you end up pitching it?
I met a book agent and he asked to see the manuscript. He said, “I can get this published for you.” And I said doubtfully, “Yeah, you go do that.” Because I thought, come on, who’s going to read a book that isn’t real? I did it as an exercise in sanity. And then it sold like crazy. I knew I had turned a corner when I did my first zombie-protection lecture, which was at Colorado College, I believe. Two hundred people showed up and I was so panicked, flop-sweating like Albert Brooks in Broadcast News. I did my lecture for 45 sweaty minutes and I opened the floor up to questions, thinking, okay, they’ve suffered through my lecture. I thought they’d ask me questions like, “Is Will Ferrell really that funny?” or “Is Tina Fey nice?” but the questions were all, “If I cut off my arm, can I stop an infection?” “What rifle do you recommend at what range?” “Should I wear body armor?” They were all actual zombie questions, and I thought maybe I was on to something.
In your travels and your lectures, did you ever meet anyone who was genuinely afraid of a zombie apocalypse?
Oh, yeah. I was doing a lecture in Utah. Been to Utah three times, they love me in Salt Lake. I think when you talk about things like canned goods and stocking up and arming yourself, that’s not much of a leap for them. Anyway, one time I was doing some radio press in Utah and this lady called up and she said, “I’m living in a trailer with my four kids and now I’m afraid of zombies and I don’t know what to do!” And I said, “Lady, if you’re living in a trailer with four kids, you’ve got bigger problems. Don’t worry about the zombies.”
Are you ever afraid that people might take your book too literally?
I have a section in it called, “Obey the law.” I’m 38, I’m of the “Suicide Solution” generation. I’m of the first American generation that watched artists get sued over their artwork because fans took it too far, so I specifically put in the book, “Don’t be proactive. Don’t go out there chopping people’s heads off.” Because you know somebody out there is going to read it and wig out. In fact, I think there actually was a controversy down in a school in Florida where some kids had Xeroxed one of my sketches from Zombie Survival Guide and they had passed it around and it just said “Be Prepared.” The faculty got a hold of it and they didn’t know it was zombies, all they saw was line drawings of people shooting other people, and they were afraid of another Columbine. I think they shut the school down.
Maybe they actually did know it was zombies and they were afraid of that.
That might be, that might be. Maybe I was right all along, and it will be like a Michael Crichton novel where the government will show up at my door and they’ll be like, “We need you!”
There is a lot of conflicting lore about zombies. Was as it hard for you to figure out what rules to follow in your book?
It wasn’t hard intellectually, but it was hard emotionally because I made a serious break from [Night of the Living Dead filmmaker George A.] Romero in that Romero’s zombies have memories and they learn. In every one of Romero’s movies, you see that there’s something moving in their brains.
Like the zombie that shaves in Day of the Dead.
Right, and he learns how to use a gun. And in Dawn of the Dead they come back to the mall because it was an important place in their life. So there’s a basic intelligence there, which to me isn’t as scary. It’s the lack of intelligence that scares the crap out of me. So I wanted my zombies to be as viral as possible. They literally are a walking virus, which you can’t negotiate with. So that was where I was coming from. The hard part was the real-world research, really finding guns that don’t jam, or what you would really need. I did a lot of studying for that, and I really had to think about it. Okay, so a zombie’s coming at you and you swing a sword at them from the side, it’s going to be a glancing blow, so you would need to poke out with a shovel or a spade to try to decapitate it. It’s like a head-on collision with two cars, you multiply the two forces together and…
Then it’s a head-off collision.
And also the head is still biting…
What’s your studied opinion on fast versus slow zombies?
Well, that’s simple. Slow zombies are based on hypothetical scientific scenarios of how necrotic flesh would behave in an ambulatory fashion. And fast zombies suck. It’s the difference between fear and anxiety. If you’re attacked by fast zombies, your adrenaline’s pumping, you’re terrified but you’re in the moment. With slow zombies it’s like, you’re running from them and you can outrun them, but you can still hear them and you know that you’re going to get tired and you know they’re going to catch up. It’s the dread, the idea that you’ve barricaded yourself in a house and there’s time to think about how you’re going to die.
Were you afraid of zombies as a kid?
Absolutely. When I was about 12 or 13, my family got cable TV, and when my parents would go out to dinner, it would be me alone. We’re talking mid-80’s, so there was always a movie, some comedy, where there was a shot of boobs. Like Police Academy, or Stripes, there was always a shot somewhere there. So my parents went out to dinner one night, and I turned on the TV and there was this movie with this naked woman. And I was like, “Yeah, awesome!” She was naked and walking in a jungle somewhere, and then suddenly there were zombies everywhere. It was an Italian zombie movie where they used real cannibal footage. What they did was they put in real documentary footage of New Guinea cannibalism and mixed it in with the zombie outbreak. I think, suffice to say, that left an impression. That was truly terrifying. That was where my phobia came from, so much so that I was so scared to watch Dawn of the Dead, I didn’t see it until grad school.
That’s basically what Jaws did to me. Sharks are my phobia.
Sharks and zombies, very similar. And you know the movie where they fight each other?
The Lucio Fulci one?
Yeah. Then you don’t know who to root for. That’s like the Russians and the Chinese fighting in the ’60s. It’s like, okay guys, go for it! Whoever wins, there’s less of you.
With your book and Shaun of the Dead and Romero remakes, zombies were dominating the first half of the decade. Then vampires came in and took over. How do you feel about that?
I think the vampire craze, particularly the Twilight movement, is great, because there has to be a market for tween girls who are afraid of penises. Clearly there’s a large demographic that thinks that male genitalia is scarier than vampires. And I think, “Good for them.” Everybody’s gotta have something. So good for the vampires. Never been my thing.
Who would win in an all-out battle royale between the two?
Okay, I’m going to get so nerd on you right now. Here’s my street cred coming out. Zombies would win but not from a tactical standpoint, from a strategic standpoint. Zombies, even though they devour human flesh do not need that flesh to sustain them. Vampires need blood to sustain them. So therefore, zombies would never have to confront vampires in a stand-up battle. All they have to do is infect the human populace, and the blood supply would dry up and vampires would die.
If the vampires sucked the blood of zombies would that make them zombie vampires?
No, they would probably die. I believe the zombie virus is toxic for them. Think of it this way, if vampires were Native Americans, and zombies were settlers, then humans would be the buffalo. Take out the buffalo and the Indians will starve.
…So the zombie virus is smallpox?
Sure, that works.