by Max Brooks
254 pages, Duckworth
Review by Pat Black
You can do a lot of things with a human brain – they hold together well in a stir fry, they make a fine dessert if drizzled with honey, and they can work wonders in a curry (true for so many foods, to be fair). But raw brains may be a little too extreme for sensitive palates – so let’s leave it for the zombies.
The shuffling undead have become the world’s number one monster. Only today I went to a shop which had a spoof “zombie dating” book in it; beside this, there was a faux-cutesy children’s push-button book which emitted different types of zombie moans. If that’s not proof of cultural crossover, I don’t know what is.
Max Brooks’ TheZombie Survival Guide has been around for a few years now. It is the precursor to the novel World War Z, which has been adapted for the big screen, being in post-production ahead of a cinema release next year.
Last summer, I was lucky enough to check out the set for World War Z in Glasgow. It furnished boobs like me with an awful lot of ammunition about how the film-makers managed to tell the zombified extras from the locals. The novel the forthcoming Brad Pitt film is based on was a sequel to Brooks’ first book, a tongue-in-cheek military survival guide based on what would happen if zombies over-ran the world.
Most of us know the rules. Zombies are the walking dead. They exist only to eat the living. If one of them bites you, you are infected. If you are infected, you die - then you are reanimated as one of the moaning undead. They aren’t very fast or agile, but if they attack in numbers, and you are cornered, you’ve had it.
Killing them? Only one way – destroy the brain. Decapitation will do the job, too, but the heads can still bite you.
My favourite thing about this book is that it fully invests in the subject. There is some glee, but it’s well disguised. Indeed, it sometimes takes on the tone of a scouts’ manual, advising against you against indulging in rash behaviour… before going into lip-smacking detail about just how things could go wrong if you do. It’s a public service advertisement crossed with EC Comics.
I can imagine Max Brooks (son of Mel, the comedy master, we should note) thinking out all the angles and calmly batting off the inquiries of sceptical schoolchildren. So… if zombies are the walking dead, why don’t they rot? Why don’t bugs eat them?
Well, it’s because the condition is caused by a virus called Solanum, you see. It repels all biological life and keeps dissolution in check. It’s independent of oxygen, too. So zombies can calmly walk across the sea bed; they can survive being frozen in the Arctic, only to be thawed out and cause carnage anew; they can tramp across the desert for thousands of miles, and lurk in the long grass.
I loved the video game aesthetic as Brooks warms to his theme. What are the weapons you can use, and how efficient are they in certain contexts? We can use just about anything, with the right training - claw hammers and mallets to machine guns and chainsaws. The machete is the best secondary weapon, Brooks concludes; lightweight, portable, and deadly at close quarters. Firearms, your primary weapon, all have advantages and disadvantages. It may seem like the best idea to spray automatic gunfire at the hordes of shuffling ghouls, but if you don’t hit them in the head you are wasting your time and ammunition. Better to have a good old-fashioned shotgun, or even a bolt-action rifle from the Second World War – much more reliable, provided you have steady hands and nerves.
You can imagine how this would go in video games. First you’d have the machete, then a handgun, then a shotgun, then…
Terrain, and siege situations are gone into in great detail, as are zombie hunting techniques. “Fishing” was especially enlightening. Here, you and a friend can scour ponds and lakes for roaming underwater zombies by first firing a gas-powered speargun into one, reeling it in, then dispatching the zombie on the surface with a headshot. Easy!
The dynamics of group survival are also scrupulously outlined. Why it’s good to have leadership, how to defuse tension in the camp through performances and comedy routines, when to move on from your fortress, how to survive on the road, why cities are no-go areas… Pick a survival scenario, and it will be outlined in this book.
The latter section of the book details “recorded incidents” throughout history where the undead have been encountered by humans, from ancient Egypt right up to the present day, before the global “outbreak” that World War Z will go on to depict. Every one of these scenarios could make an awesome zombie survival movie in its own right. I was tickled to read about a scenario involving Romans and Picts in central Scotland, bringing us back full circle to Glasgow.
There was some sly political commentary, too, examining massacres in Vietnam in the 1970s and imperialist disasters throughout history. Intriguing characters are hinted at, too – Elijah Black, the Native American zombie hunter of the Old West, surely merits a film on his own.
It’s difficult to know where this unabated love for zombies come from. While I’m not a fan of Stephenie Meyer, I can understand why some teenage girls would be attracted to the idea of a sparkly emo vampire restraining himself from biting them. When it comes to werewolves, we all have a monster of some sort hidden inside us. It might emerge when we watch team sports, or if we drink too much, or if we hear about our children being bullied at school… but it is surely there. Zombies, though?
George A Romero made the zombie genre as we understand it today. This came about when the Vietnam War was at its height, and much of the blood and gore of the genre stems from young Americans’ experiences with sudden, horrible death in strange settings. Indeed, Tom Savini, a make-up effects master who worked on Romero’s zombie films, ascribes much of his talents to what he witnessed in the jungles of North Vietnam as a combat photographer.
The source for ideas of blank, moaning, zoned-out humanoids doesn’t require much investigation when we think of the explosion in drug-taking during this period. I once drew laughs when I read a statistic that UFO sightings increased exponentially from 1966-1970 in America, and suggested that this was down to the presence of Star Trek on television as well as the Space Race.
“I think you’ll find that drugs may have had something to do with this,” someone said, drily.
So how do we deconstruct our current fascination with zombies? The genre shows no sign of stopping, not unlike a slow wave of clutching, biting, moaning ghouls itself. The Walking Dead is continuing to attract great acclaim on television. And it won’t be long before you can watch Glasgow (standing in for Pittsburgh) being over-run by shrieking devils and defended by Brad Pitt… they could have saved a fortune and just filmed George Square any given Saturday night, or during Old Firm weekend, ba-doomp-tish.
Partly it’s to do with technology, for me. We’re all plugged into mobile phones, laptop computers, MP3 players. It has made zombies of us, in a way, tuned out of reality. I would slate people who sit in pubs and click their phones instead of talking to the people they’re with, if it weren’t for the fact that I do it, too. Myself and my partner sat in a pub the other day and both caught ourselves screwing around with our phones, and laughed; we have become the things we hate, and we do not have the excuse of being teenagers.
There’s a real streak of misanthropy in the genre, too. The zombie canon features those gory, horrible headshots… But it doesn’t really count, does it? After all, it’s a zombie. You’re not shooting a person. Except, well, you are. In these books, you see a zombie, you blow its head off. There are no consequences to this. This is slightly troubling.
Indeed, George A Romero - the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John of zombie auteurs - explored this beautifully in the bleak conclusion to the original Night of the Living Dead, with its ghastly case of mistaken identity. In these days of friendly fire and continuous warfare being played out across the world, you can see how this resonates with today’s audiences.
Warfare is the link in the two zombie “boom” periods. Life seems cheaper than ever these days, and technology has made that possible. Snuff movies were the stuff of myth and legend 20 years ago, the ultimate taboo of watching someone’s life being brought to an end. We could not have imagined then how easy it is to watch the most ghastly things on our computer screens. 9/11 can’t be discounted as a cause, here. We watched previously unimaginable carnage live on our televisions. And, as we invaded other countries in retaliation, and the use of computer technology and information spread across the world, a more immersive experience followed suit, very different to the static war reportage photographs we know. Now came images and even videos of IED attacks, beheadings, suicides, car crashes, shootings, civilians turned into mince by bored-sounding helicopter gunners… I shudder to think about it.
Perhaps we are being desensitised. Or maybe there’s no ‘perhaps’ about it. Death – the very meat and bones of it – is just a click away for us nowadays.
So maybe this immediacy and immanence of death makes the zombie genre perfectly understandable. The notion of shuffling undead and the ways and means of escaping their clutches is an understandable reaction of our subconscious to a very real world of horror which we can’t escape from.
Shoot ‘em in the head.