Max Brooks, The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete protection from the living dead. UK: London: Duckworth, 2004. Pp xiv, 254. ISBN 0-7156-3318-X. £8.99. US: Three Rivers Press, 2003. Pp. 272. ISBN 1-4000-4962-8. $12.95

Reviewed by Djibril

This useful little self-help book—modelled on the countless 'teach yourself' and special forces-style survival handbooks beloved of survivalists and adolescent boys everywhere—covers almost every conceivable detail and eventuality that might occur in the fight against zombies on any scale. In the unlikely occurrence that a deadly virus strikes, the living dead rise in your neighbourhood, and you find yourself in charge of organising a group for defence, escape, or extermination, you would probably find this book genuinely useful, as Brooks has thought of more or less everything.

The book begins with an account of the science behind zombies: the highly infectious virus Solanum and its ability to transform the human nervous system from the thinking, controlling mechanism it is now, to little more than a centralised organ in an undying, decomposing, essentially mindless killing machine. After detailing the physical and behavioural characteristics of the zombie, and debunking myths such as the Voodoo zombie, the Hollywood zombie, and the super-powered zombie, Brooks goes on to classify the four levels of zombie outbreak. Outbreaks of classes one and two are essentially small-scale and short-term, involving under twenty and under a hundred zombies respectively, being very geographically localised, and lasting only a few days. Class one outbreaks are usually dealt with by local response and attract little media attention (although heroic zombie-slayers may find themselves charged with murder); the class two outbreak usually requires an organised response by local law enforcement or military, and consequently media reports are unavoidable, although probably inaccurate. A class three outbreak is bad news: there may be thousands of zombies over a wide expanse of land, and human casualties will be high. Even where military response is fast and efficient, individual zombies may survive to re-infect the population, and civilian vigilance is advised. A class four outbreak is the worst kind, where zombies in effect take over the world as humans descend into chaos, panic, and anarchy, governments fall and civilisation is all but destroyed. A whole chapter later in the book is devoted to this eventuality.

The rest of the volume is dedicated to practical advice on surviving combat with the living dead. First comes an overview section on weapons and combat techniques: it is well known, for example, that zombies can only be killed by destroying the brain, so a head-shot or decapitation, preferably followed by cremation. Brooks takes this simple rule, and runs down an impressive catalogue of weapons, listing the both advantages and impracticalities (crowbar good, flamethrower bad). The next chapters outline three very different scenarios: defending against a zombie siege; fleeing from a zombie infested territory; and leading an assault to eradicate a zombie infestation. In each case Brooks discusses terrain types to choose or avoid, modes of transport, the importance of choosing a battleground, and suggests tactics to use in the various events. All this advice is good, if sometimes a little overwhelming--this is not a book to be read the night before a zombie outbreak.

A large section follows on how to deal with the nightmare scenario that an infection exceeds the limits of a class one to three outbreak and you find yourself 'living in an undead world'. The key in this section is preparation: you have to become a survivalist, cache weapons and live in the mountains, or buy a desert island, or move to Siberia and learn to live off the environment with no human contact for a couple of generations. Here Brooks defers to the already copious literature on post-holocaust survival, only pointing out the important ways in which the existence of zombies throughout the globe will change your tactics.

Finally the last sixty-five pages of the book are given over to accounts of reported zombie attacks throughout history, starting with archaeological theories based on fossil records from 60 000 BCE, and running through the ancient and mediaeval worlds to the modern day. Accounts come from all contents, from both rural and urban areas, and vary from small scale to larger catastrophes (mostly class one or two, occasionally hinting at a class three outbreak).

Although this is a very entertaining read, it is worth asking what is the point of a book such as this. Although I have said it would be very useful in the case of a real undead assault, this scenario is perhaps marginally less likely to happen to me than that I should be the lone civilised survivor of a nuclear holocaust and have to fend for myself against fallout, the forces of nature, and desperate brigands. Clearly this book is a satire, and it is funny both in its earnestness and its close parody of such self-help tomes and of zombie mythology generally. However the book does not contain a single actual joke (although I did laugh out loud when I spotted the several pages at the end reserved for an "outbreak journal"), and makes none of the facetious observations about cinematic cliché as appeared in Shaun of the Dead, for example.

One class of person who might have a very practical reason to read this book is the sci-fi/horror writer working on an idea for a zombie novel themselves. Brooks has thought of almost everything, and this book is an exercise in thinking consequences and outcomes through to their conclusion, something particularly important in as cliché-bound and irrational a genre as the zombie story. The final section is also a very rich source of scenarios involving zombie attacks, with the added bonus that many of these put zombies in unusual environments, any one of which could be expanded or adapted into a story at the very least, perhaps a novel or a whole world.

Beware however, that if you plan to write a zombie story inspired by Brooks' very inventive accounts, that any originality in your story will almost certainly be pre-empted by this work. Although I found this book quite inspiring, in fact, I think I am less likely to enter the fray myself and write a zombie novel than I might have been beforehand.

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