You'd think the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft would have settled into a nice comfortable comedy writing gig. But since his days writing for Saturday Night Live, Max Brooks has instead forged a career in an unlikely niche: zombie expert.
Brooks, 39, is author of the best-selling The Zombie Survival Guide (Three Rivers Press, 2003) and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (Crown, 2006)—which earned him the "Studs Terkel of zombie journalism" moniker—and is being made into a 2012 Paramount Studios movie starring Brad Pitt as a United Nations agent who interviews survivors of a global zombie war.
How did you come up with such a curious niche as zombie expert?
I didn't really set out to come up with a niche. I just was a zombie fan and wanted to answer my own questions. I used to wonder how I would survive a zombie attack and went looking for a book on how to do it. Nobody had written it, so I thought I'd just write it for myself, and it sat on the shelf for years before it ever got published. That was Zombie Survival Guide. When it came time to write another book, I wasn't done with zombies. Every zombie story up until that point was a micro-story about an individual or group of humans and their little war. But to me, that isn't enough, because zombies are macro-horror. They're big. They're global. No one was answering my questions about what a global zombie pandemic would look like, so that's when I wrote World War Z.
Did you ever expect a zombie career would blow up like this?
God, no! Zombie books were going to be my passion projects, but certainly not pay the bills. I thought I was going to have to get a real job on a sitcom or something, and have my zombie books to remind myself I was still a writer at heart. I never thought I could actually pay my bills and write what I wanted.
Did you ever envision World War Z as a film?
If I thought there was any hope of turning World War Z into a movie, I wouldn't have written it as a giant, epic, global story, because that requires a giant, epic, global budget. I was thrilled Brad Pitt's company had the movie rights, because I thought it would be some nice exposure. I remember saying to readers, "Don't expect them to ever make this. Nobody's going to put up the money for a blockbuster zombie movie."
Why are zombies so popular now?
Zombies are apocalyptic, and we're living in times of great fear. A long time ago, there was a thing called the 1970s, when we had great anxiety, people didn't know which direction the world was going in, and you had a lot of zombie movies. In the '80s and '90s, we got back to normal, and nobody wanted to talk about the apocalypse. Not so much now. Zombies let us explore notions of the apocalypse—no water, food, medical care, the government imploding—while letting us sleep at night.
How can you tell if someone is a zombie?
If your friend is a zombie, he's gonna try to eat you. So there's no gray area there.
Will you be writing about zombies when the current craze wanes?
If I knew anything about what people wanted and was popular, I'd still be writing for Saturday Night Live. I can only write what I want, and hopefully people will like it. But I can't write something I think will be popular. That's a dead-end for me.
[Brooks' next film adaptation has nothing to do with zombies; Warner Bros. is developing The Great Wall from a story Brooks co-wrote with Legendary Entertainment chief executive Thomas Tull about the Great Wall of China's origin.]
Since your dad tackled the Frankenstein myth with Young Frankenstein, how does he feel about your zombie expertise?
My dad's just very excited I have a job.
From left: zombie expert, Max Brooks, author of World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide
Middle left: zombie expert Matt Mogk, founder of the Zombie Research Society
Middle right: vampire expert Scott Bowen, author of The Vampire Survival Guide
Far right: vampire expert Steve Niles, a veteran comic book writer, known for 30 Days of Night