Books: The Zombie Survival Guide

…by Max Brooks.  The Zombie Survival Guide came out in  in 2003, a key component in what some have dubbed the Zombie Renaissance in horror writing and other media.  With this book and his novel, World War Z (which is on my reading list), Brooks both took advantage of and helped spur on the profusion of undead fiction.

The ZSG is exactly what the title says it is : complete protection from the living dead.  It’s written as a handbook or manual in the tradition of outdoor, disaster, and yes, nuclear survival guides of years past, and Brooks’ commitment to the material is complete.  There are no ironic twist or humorous winks in this book (despite the fact it may be found in your book store’s humor section).  The guide begins with a description of the virus Solanum, which causes humans to become zombies.  These zombies have no respiration, metabolism, or higher brain functions.  Their only instinct is to feed – preferably on human flesh.  They aren’t the fast zombies of 28 Days Later or the mystic zombies of Caribbean and African mythology.  They are single-minded feeding machines in vaguely human form.  They survive until the flesh falls from their bones or their brains are severely damaged.  Thus does Brooks define his monsters, which seem most like the zombies of older movies and most notably, Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead.

Having laid the functional groundwork the next portions of the book deal with how to survive various levels of zombie outbreaks.  There are sections on weapons, terrain, defensive maneuvers, and combat tactics.  It’s written in no-nonsense survivalist terms that stresses a couple of key themes over and over:

  • You can only kill them by destroying their brains or decapitation.  This makes machine guns, assault rifles, and other high rate-of-fire weapons a lot less useful than accurate less wasteful ones.  All of Brooks’ combat tactics revolve around this.
  • Once they know where you are, they pursue you endlessly, which puts a lot of emphasis on stealth and avoiding loud noises.
  • Governments and other large organizations are not your friends.  Whether it’s through a desire to suppress the existence of zombies and avoid panic, or more sinister motives, you just can’t trust the authorities in most situations.

The ZSG uses a fair amount of ink applying these themes to refute or correct the misconceptions popularized by ‘Hollywood’ and other ‘fictional’ zombies.  As mentioned above, the guidelines are consistent throughout and completely (otherwise) grounded in reality…  Which is why they become a little tiresome and repetitive after awhile.

They did lead me to several conclusions about the Beemsville response and general level of preparedness for a zombie outbreak.  We would probably do OK in a small-scale (Level 1 or Level 2) scenario, as we have many of the requisite supplies.  Even in a Level 3 outbreak, we’d probably be OK if we could make it to the more rural outposts of our extended family.  But we’d certainly fall short in a longterm situation as we are quite dependent on our western industrialized consumer-driven way of life.  I’m no eagle scout and young kids are always going to be a problem when the flesh eaters start appearing.

Brooks also has a section on a Level 4 or zombie-takeover scenario, which is not only interesting but obvious groundwork for his World War Z novel.  In fact this whole book could be seen as the background material or research bible for his novel.  It’s a neat trick if you can pull it off:  publishing a guidebook that also constitutes the world-building and background fodder for your next book.

The final section of this book, ‘Recorded Attacks’, is the most interesting and enjoyable section.  Having laid everything out, Brooks proceeds to trace zombie encounters from prehistoric times (cave paintings) through to the present.  They’re written as scholarly investigative accounts, some of them a couple of paragraphs, some several pages, and they’re very well done.  In fact, it was this section (and a friend’s recommendation) that firmly put World War Z on my reading list.  You have early cultures adapting their religions to deal with zombies, you have the Roman’s and feudal Japanese highly organized martial response to the problem.  You have suppression and secrecy by the Church (what a surprise!), Western Imperial arrogance when faced with the reality of zombies and how the indigenous deal with them, and modern governments conducting top secret research in attempts to control the monsters and find military applications.  Good stuff, and you can tell Brooks had a lot of fun here.  He also did a comic book trade paperback with some of this material a couple of years ago (picked up the preview at Wizard World Chicago), which may also be worth a look.

If you’re a zombie fiction fan, you should probably give The Zombie Survival Guide a look – assuming you haven’t already.  Others may want to skip straight to the novel.

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