Q & A with Max Brooks

Posted on by Ali S. Khan

Dr. Ali Khan and Max Brooks

Apparently I hit a chord with my readers this May when I posted “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse.” The initial response was overwhelming, with people of all ages and all walks of life writing and calling to say how much they enjoyed reading the blog and how they were getting prepared for any emergency, whether it be hurricanes, floods, or yes even a zombie apocalypse. The response hasn’t slowed down and that has made me wonder what it is about zombies that is so intriguing? Recently, I had a chance to talk to a veritable zombie expert, Max Brooks, and asked him a few questions about the topic now dear to both our hearts…zombies.

On the off chance you don’t know who Max Brooks is, he’s the author of The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which will be acted out on the silver screen December 2012 by A-Lister Brad Pitt. Since we share a common interest in the undead I thought I’d pick Max’s brain about how he became interested in the topic and why zombies are so entrenched in popular culture now a days.

The Interview

First, I have to ask, what’s your favorite zombie movie?

BROOKS: The original “Dawn of the Dead” by George A. Romero. I’ve always been big on social commentary and I don’t think you can find a movie (of ANY genre) that dealt more accurately with the death of triumph of 1970s consumerism over 1960s idealism.  I think Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” have nothing on “DOTD” when it comes to indicting short-sighted greed. 

Graphic Novella coverYou’ve been working with zombies, for quite a while now, what first got you interested?

BROOKS: It was a childhood phobia that evolved into an adult fascination. As I got older I realized that zombie stories were a powerful tool for examining real world issues.  Because zombies are a macro-threat, (as opposed to say, a single werewolf/vampire micro threat), they can kill people by simply disrupting the slender threads that hold society together. In a zombie outbreak, how many people would die from starvation, dehydration, and unhygienic living conditions?

The notion of a walking plague also terrifies me, and that comes from growing in the 1980s. When I was a kid, I watched AIDS go from an obscure, arcane curiosity to a global pandemic. What drove me crazy was that unlike the Black Death or the Spanish Influenza, AIDS could have simply been stopped by a pamphlet: A couple dos and don’ts, a little education and clear-headed leadership and it might have ended up as a footnote in a virologists’ medical text. If that’s not zombies, I don’t know what is. Like AIDS, they’re very easy to stop, and with the right clear-headed leadership, they could be wiped out before ever becoming a threat. But in zombie stories, we don’t have that kind of leadership, or education, or organization. Humanity makes one mistake after another and before you know it, there’s a global pandemic.   In the original “Dawn of the Dead,” a scientist is screaming that “We’ve got be logical! We’ve got to be rational! It’s the only way to survive!” A decade later, a lot of real scientists said the same thing about AIDS.

Until I blogged about zombies I had no idea there were so many groups working on projects involving zombies, from actors and singers to school teachers, it seemed like everyone had zombies on the brain. Why do you think zombies are so popular? Are they the new vampire or are they bigger?

BROOKS: I think zombie stories express the current societal anxieties we’re all confronting on a daily basis. The last time zombies were popular were the 1970s. It was a time of transitions, and some of them were quite scary. You had terrorism, controversial wars, economic malaise, environmental concerns and a deep social divide not seen since the Civil War.  All those problems seemed to dissipate (along with zombie interest) in the 80s and 90s. Now they’re all back, and new and improved. A lot of people have disaster preparedness on the brain, and it’s a lot “safer”, psychologically to ruminate on a zombie disaster rather than, say, a hurricane or an earthquake induced tsunami.  When confronted with real anxiety, a lot of people shut down. For them, planning for an actual crisis is just too scary, too paralyzing to think about. Make it a zombie attack, though, then there’s some psychological padding. Ask someone to plan for swine flu quarantine, you’ll get “that’s such a downer.” Ask them to plan for a zombie siege and you’ll get “that’d be awesome!” 

World War Z book coverYour book and upcoming movie, World War Z, follows a reporter during a zombie apocalypse. While you were writing the story you must have thought a lot about what you would do if zombies ever started roaming the streets again. If you were going to prepare for a scenario like the one in World War Z, what would you put in your emergency kit?

BROOKS: Everything I already have in my Earthquake survival kit. I grew up in Southern California and disaster preparedness was drilled into everyday life. We had earthquake drills, earthquake kits, earthquake plans both at home and at school. Living in L.A. we also had to prepare for the occasional forest fire, flash flood, rolling blackout and Rodney King riot. The great thing about the undead is that a zombie survival kit doesn’t need anything ‘zombie specific’. No cross, no garlic, no silver bullets (unless you plan to trade the silver for penicillin). Everything you need for a zombie attack, you’d need for any large scale disaster. When I wrote, in “The Zombie Survival Guide” about getting first aid kid, a hand crank radio/flashlight, an emergency blanket, bottled water (and some means of purifying more!), I didn’t have to look any farther than what’s already sitting in a backpack under my bed. 

That’s so true, I hope people will continue to see that if you’re prepared for a zombie apocalypse you’re prepared for any emergency. In fact, for those of you with kids, it might be easier to convince your family to put together an emergency kit and plan if you tell them you want to be prepared for zombies (sort of like telling kids spinach really will give them muscles like Popeye.)

A big thank you to Max for talking to me about the undead. I hope you all enjoyed reading, if you can’t get enough zombies check out our zombie page for information on posters, graphic novels, and more from CDC. Or visit Max’s website for more on his zombie projects, including the new paperback edition of World War Z.

Let us know what you think…leave a comment!

Posted on by Ali S. Khan

18 comments on “Q & A with Max Brooks”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    America lives in the comfort of plenty. When major events happens alot of people are unprepared. I have a survival kit that can cover a hurricane & zombie outbreak. Happy to see the CDC finally touching on this subject.

    Thanks for this–I’m writing my Masters thesis about the postcolonial implications of the evolution of the zombie in film, and I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with the original blog post from last May. Brooks actually voices some of the points that I’ve been trying to articulate about why this strikes a chord with the public, and now I have him to quote!

    This is truly a wonderful way to get people to get prepared! I am obsessed with wanting to work for the CDC and help with issues. That is what I come to this site for in the first place. However, I am obsessed with zombies too! I get all I want from one website!

    The zombies were a great idea. I got some of my friends interested in emergency preparation by posting the link. Most still have not started a emergency kit but we have discussed what would be useful in a zombie apocalypse. Now they know what they should need just in case….

    I am rather disappointed that they are so politically correct as to noticeably exclude firearms from their list of suggested survival items. Putting aside this silly (but entertaining) stuff about zombies, the lack of law and order in the immediate aftermath of several hurricanes and riots have demonstrated the wisdom of having the means at hand to defend yourself and your family from bad people until order can be reestablished.

    I would like to express my sincere appreciation to you Mr. Khan for this interview. Preparedness is for everybody and your articles help reach a broader audience.

    Zombie or Hurricanes, they both threaten your loved ones.

    Stay vigilant!

    My Social Studies teacher has the “Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide” and I borrowed it. It was entertaining but I was wondering if any of the “events” in the book were actual events that Max Brooks added zombies to.

    The fact remains, America’s best-selling books are the Ayn Rand novels. These are said, falsely, to promote individualism.
    They promote a subset of it, They promote short-sighted, egocentric, materialist individualism, the ideology of the piranha, the disease of the zombie.

    Well I’ll be the first to say that I think if the Center for disease control and prevention would like for the American people or anyone for that matter to take them seriously and actually believe anything they say at all, then maybe they should put a Quote somewhere on all of their Available information on or about Zombies, reminding the UN-educated that, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunami’s, tornadoes, fires and floods, won’t be chasing them, trying to swarm them and eat them alive, but that’s the only goal Zombies have. You can’t kill them with a flashlight, you can’t kill them with purified water and you can’t kill them with the radio either, and they don’t want your food, friendship or sympathy either. It honestly sounds like someone trying to make sure you’re not prepared for that kind of situation this article is pathetic, misleading and absolutely does not need to be on the cdc website unless its a serious threat in which case, it should be way more important than their patented viruses they are killing us with, like COVID-19

    I was declared dead twice (then woke up a couple weeks later) – I want to meet others like me. Does the CDC keep track of people, like me?

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