MVPs of Horror: 'World War Z' mastermind Max Brooks rates the best zombies in pop culture

Once upon a time, kids were introduced to the wild, wonderful world of horror through slender volumes like the immortally terrifying Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (the version with the original Stephen Gammell artwork — not the significantly toned-down drawings glimpsed in contemporary copies). These days, they’re more likely to get their early scares from immersive experiences like Minecraft, the ubiquitous multiplatform video game that’s been a sensation since it first launched in 2009. While it may seem like an innocent adventure on the surface, there’s plenty of scary stuff to mine in Minecraft, from rivers of lava to skittering spiders to slow-moving, but still-deadly zombies.

The latter element particularly appealed to zombie expert — should we call him, zombert? — Max Brooks, who literally wrote the book on the walking dead in the form of The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z. The author recently expanded Minecraft‘s trans-media footprint by penning Minecraft: The Island, its first officially-licensed tie-in novel. Adopting a first-person perspective, the book, like the game’s Survival mode, drops the reader onto an island where they confront strange creatures, creeping starvation and the body horror that comes with suddenly being transformed into a figure made entirely of square boxes.

“There’s an element of fear to Minecraft, definitely,” Brooks tells Yahoo Entertainment. “That comes from the first time I played the game. There I was all alone, trying to survive. At first it was kind of cool, and then the sun went down and the zombies came out. I was like, ‘Great, I’m right back to where I started!‘” We chatted with Brooks about the art of writing zombie horror for kids, his favorite zombie movies and where he stands on the movie version of World War Z.        

Yahoo: Minecraft: The Island could be a gateway into horror fiction for a lot of kids. Did you have that in mind as you were writing it?
Max Brooks:
Oh yeah. I was trying to create that feeling of being vulnerable, of being physically mortal, which is something I got in touch with earlier being a neurotic human being. I hear other people talk about the invincibility of youth, but I never had that. I think I jumped right into middle age at the age of 8. [Laughs] What I love about Minecraft is that when you play on Survival mode, there’s an element of horror that I think reflects the real world. It doesn’t matter how witty and cute and awesome you think you are: the zombies are coming for you and you’d better protect yourself. You’re also going to starve if you don’t get up off your square butt and get some food. What a great metaphor for life! What a book allows you to do is present all the sense that a video game doesn’t. Basically, all I had to do was take the horrifying scenarios of the video game and bring a more sensory experience to it.

What were the first horror stories you were exposed to?
For me, being dyslexic, I came to reading later in life. I wasn’t one of those young kids curled up in the corner with a Judy Blume book. That was one of the reasons I felt vulnerable; all the other kids could just sit down and do something, and I couldn’t. I grew up during the golden age of horror movies in the late ’70s and early ’80s when even the trailers were scary. I remember the trailers for movies like Jaws 2 and Silent Scream. I also remember all the faux-documentaries. Talk about fake news — we had fake news: we had In Search Of…! When Leonard Nimoy tells you that the Loch Ness monster is real, you believe him. I would get together with my friends and go, ‘Did you see In Search Of… last night? You can really spontaneously combust!‘”

How about your earliest memory of seeing a zombie?
I was about 12 or 13, and I was doing what all 12 or 13 boys did in the mid-’80s: trying to find boobs on TV. My parents [Hollywood legends Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft] had cable [in their bedroom] and when they would go out for dinner, I would sneak in and wait to find something. I remember seeing this movie with ridiculously gorgeous woman who was way naked, and I thought, “This was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.” What I didn’t realize is that I had accidentally wandered into an Italian cannibal zombie movie! Not even a George Romero-style zombie movie. It was hardcore, with people being torn apart and a dead woman in a wheelchair with a cat jumping out of her stomach. If that doesn’t mess you up when you’re 12 or 13, I don’t know what will. The irony is that when I saw Night of the Living Dead a few years later, that actually gave me hope. Because Romeo set down rules: those zombies aren’t invincible and you’re not guaranteed to die. There are ways to defeat them and survive — the challenge is figuring out those ways.

What’s sort of crazy is, with the exception of burning at dawn, the Minecraft zombies are a lot closer to the classic version of zombies than are in a lot of other zombie media now. What scares me about the George Romero zombies is that they’re relentless. Every other creature in Minecraft give up on chasing you after a while, but the zombies will never stop. And those are the zombies I’ve always been afraid of. Thirty years after seeing my first zombie and 10 years after writing World War Z here they are again, except they’re square. [Laughs]

If Minecraft and Minecraft: The Island proves to be a child’s first brush with zombies, where would you recommend them going next?
It depends. If you’re a little kid, like 10 years old, don’t go anywhere near anything else. When you become an adolescent, I would recommend Night of the Living Dead and then jump right to Shaun of the Dead. Then, in their 20s, they should go to the original Dawn of the Dead, which is easily the greatest zombie movie ever made. The film’s social commentary is shockingly profound. It’s very rare that any artist in any time in any medium can encapsulate their entire generation journey in to one work of art, and Romero did that. As a baby boomer, he took his entire generation and encapsulated the death of their ideals and their surrender to materialism in one single movie. That fact that we could look around in the ’70s and watch the dream of the ’60s die and put that in a movie is beyond brilliant — it’s profound. I’ve always said that Dawn of the Dead should be released in a box set with Easy Rider, and it should be called: Baby Boomers: The Beginning and the End.

Is there any contemporary zombie movie that you’d put on that level in terms of social relevance?
Shaun of the Dead is brilliant. What it did was encapsulate the British Gen-X culture in terms of, “What now?” Britain had centuries of empire, which then came crashing down and then they had this sort of slow, fake renaissance in the form of the swinging ’60s. They were like, “We don’t need the empire! We’ll just have free love!” It was all bull crap and they knew it, so 10 years later, they had something genuine, which was the angry punk movement. Then you had this right-wing renaissance with Thatcher, and when that went away it was the ’90s and there was this giant shrug that set in. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg took that and put it into a zombie movie. Here’s a whole generation of young Britons who have survived all these revolutions, and they’re like, “Where do we go from here?” That was Shaun of the Dead.

Even that film is over 10 years old at this point. Has there been an even more recent zombie movie that rises to the level of Dawn of the Dead for you.
What happened after Romero is that we got a lot of hangers-on who are not ambitious enough to try and do anything intelligent with their zombie movies. They just focus on heads being blown off. I’m hoping there’s somebody out there who is trying to do something smarter, but I haven’t seen it yet. People are just riding the wave and making a buck because zombies are popular. And that’s just the way these things work. Someone comes along with a genuine vision, and then the people who aren’t as talented and ambitious pick up on that and go, “There’s some nice coattails I can ride.” You saw that in the ’70s and ’80s. The Italian cannibal zombie movie that I saw as a kid was a coattail rider; it was literally just boobs and blood. What I worry about is that the zombie genre is so saturated, a genuine vision will get lost in the flood. It may have already happened! I’m the world’s biggest zombie fan and I literally don’t have the time or patience to wade through all the mediocrity. There may be an unbelievably brilliant piece of zombie literature or comic book or film that happened and I missed it.

Where do you stand on the eternal “slow zombies vs. fast zombies” debate? The movie version of World War Z went with the former, while your book features the latter.
I’m a slow zombie guy. But then again, I’m also the world’s worst businessman! If I had any notion of how capitalism works, I’d be writing World War Z Part 2, 3, 4 and 5. I appreciate the financial incentive of the fast zombies. Let’s be honest: they’re more attractive. If you’re going to make a $300 million zombie movie that plays around the world, young people don’t have the patience to sit there and watch slow creeping dread. They want action, excitement and thrills. I don’t write for that, so fast zombies don’t do anything for me. If you’re attacked by a fast zombie, you’ll be dead before you know it. It’s having the time to imagine and worry about your death that does it for me.

Are you kept up to date on what’s going on with the World War Z sequel?
I know what I see on Yahoo and that’s about it! [Laughs]

Is it hard ceding control of something you’ve created like that?
It’s never easy, but at the same time you have to be a grown-up about it. The truth is that I made a conscious choice, and when I make a choice I have to accept the consequences. If I have a problem with how the movie turned out, that’s my problem, not theirs.

Did you like the movie version overall?
I liked it, because it had nothing to do with my book! People always ask, “Did they ruin your book?” And I say, “No they didn’t ruin my book, they ignored it!” As a writer it was easier to watch a movie that was a complete departure versus a movie that was close, but not quite. It was actually harder for me to watch The Hobbit, because those movies were still The Hobbit, but they weren’t. It was the same characters and basic story, but the changed enough to change the basic theme and message of it. With the World War Z movie, I didn’t invent Gerry Lane [played by Brad Pitt]; he’s not my character, so he can do whatever he wants as far as I’m concerned. Once the title sequence went by, I was just watching 28 Days Later on crack.

They did one thing in the movie that I thought was brilliant, and I wish I had thought of for the book, and that’s when that scientist accidentally shoots himself. I’m pretty familiar with firearms and firearm safety, and when it comes to the gun debate, that’s a very big deal. We don’t talk about the amount of accidental shootings in this country [that happen] because people don’t treat guns with the same respect they treat their cars. So to have this brilliant scientist accidentally keeps his finger on the trigger and shoot himself I thought was brilliant and true.

If a studio decides to use The Island as a basis for a Minecraft movie, do you hope they adapt it faithfully?
When you make a conscious choice to play in someone else’s sandbox, you also have to make a conscious choice to be okay with whatever happens. I already consider myself phenomenally lucky because the game company, Mojang, didn’t mess with the book. They would have been within their legal rights to change anything they wanted, and I would have to have been okay with that. But the book you’re reading is pretty much the story I wanted to tell. So if for some reason this becomes a movie or some other medium, at least I got this right. I also made a conscious decision to stay true to the game, so I don’t see how they would mess with their own game. If they did that, they’d have bigger problems than upsetting me!

Minecraft: The Island is now available from online and retail booksellers. World War Z is available to rent or purchase on Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube.

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