The Zombies of 'World War Z' Max Brooks' last book was a survival guide for the zombie war. Now, he tells the stories of those who survived the battle. The book is World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie.
NPR logo

The Zombies of 'World War Z'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Zombies of 'World War Z'

The Zombies of 'World War Z'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Tomorrow on the program, Bob Newhart joins us. And after two long-running television programs, best-selling comedy albums, movies, even a death defying appearance on the Emmy awards, his first book is out. He joins us tomorrow to talk about five decades of making people laugh and to take your calls. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

Now, World War Z. Three years ago, we reported on our air about the coming disaster, the plague of zombies. Max Brooks, author of the Zombie Survival Guide, took all kinds of questions from our listeners about the looming zombie threat.

Eric, who's with us from Davis, California.

ERIC (CALLER): Hi. I've got a legal question about the zombie issue here. If I actually take the zombie's life, will there be legal ramifications for me as they are actually an undead being?

Mr. MAX BROOKS (Author): You know, that's a really good question. That's why I encourage people to not attack initially. Wait till the outbreak becomes full-fledged. Wait until everybody knows it's a zombie outbreak. You know, you don't want to be the first person to see the lone zombie and run up and cut its head off.

CONAN: Back then, Max Brooks was just an up and coming zombie expert. He's now, sadly, the definitive chronicler of what was then merely a threat and is now referred to by all of us survivors as World War Z. He's the author of the new book World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, and he joins us now to talk about it from what's left our bureau in New York - Hero City. Max Brooks, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. BROOKS: Good to be back, sir.

CONAN: And, of course, we want to hear from other survivors. From you, tell us your stories of the zombie war. How did you survive? What did you learn? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address,

And Max, it must give you sort of a chill to hear that advice to that fellow in lighter days when we thought George Romero was just a filmmaker rather than a prophet.

Mr. BROOKS: You know, I would give anything to be that young man again and try to tell people how to head off the zombie plague, instead of talking about how it really happened.

CONAN: Interestingly, as you go back and interview some of the key figures in that long and horrible conflict, I was fascinated to discover that you found the man who believes he knows that he found the guy who was zombie zero - patient zero. The first zombie.

Mr. BROOKS: Yes. Yes. I interviewed a medical doctor in central China who believes that he found if not patient zero, at least the first group of patient zero, around what was then the Lake of the Three Gorges Dam.

CONAN: And it turns out, of course, zombies persist underwater. We've all learned that to our terrible cost. It's even believed - even at this late date - 20 to 30 million?

Mr. BROOKS: Yes. Still wandering somewhere beneath the surface of the ocean. Still surfacing at beaches all over the world. Still accounting for deaths of swimmers. Still a very, very real threat.

CONAN: And, you know, the thing that puzzles so many of us, there was so much confusion, so much denial at the time when all this started - how did it get called African rabies, anyway?

Mr. BROOKS: You know, to this day, we don't know. We don't know if it was an active cover up or if it was a bureaucratic error. It was just a misdiagnosis. We just don't know. And we postulate that perhaps the original person who diagnosed it as African rabies is no longer with us.

CONAN: Hmm. As so many people were turned, one of the true conclusions -there were a lot of military conclusions that, regrettably lessons learned in World War Z - that, well, in a fight against Zack, Zack is fearless. Zack cannot be intimidated.

Mr. BROOKS: No, and I think we have to remember that. The majority of inter- human warfare is psychological, is to shock and awe your enemy into submission. Every enemy has its psychological limits, except for the living dead, who cannot biologically be shock and awed.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. There are so many lessons learned. So many places - Pearl Harbor, of course, once a sleepy naval base in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Well, we used to think of Yonkers as, you know, industrial suburb of the city of New York.

Mr. BROOKS: We did, we did. I don't know if many people knew what Yonkers was. And now it's up there with Pearl Harbor and Little Big Horn and Islandlwana. It was the worst military disaster of the zombie war.

CONAN: You reject - there was someone you interviewed who rejected the thesis that, you know, we had as usual prepared our armed forces to fight the last conflict, which was why we were so hideously unprepared for what actually happened in Yonkers.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. I think it really, unfortunately, exposed the horrible corruption within the higher military establishment. You had all these high- tech, expensive weapon systems that we just didn't need that were completely ineffective. You had poor battle doctrine. You had poor training. You had weapon systems like Land Warrior, which allow you to see what everyone else in your platoon is seeing. Unfortunately, it allowed everyone to see their friends being eaten.

CONAN: And talk about the value of fear in combat, well - and also the understanding, as soon as they could see that huge line stretching back to Times Square, this was just the head of a snake.

Mr. BROOKS: It really was, and I think that was something to remember, is that netrocentric - which is what we like to call warfare before World War Z - it allowed every ground soldier to see that they were part of a massive, massive battle and that behind those thousand zombies they were seeing were millions.

CONAN: We want your stories of the Zombie War, 800-989-8255 - 800-989-TALK. E- mail us if your computer survived at Jamon(ph), Jamon's calling us from Muncie, Indiana.

JAMON (Caller): Yes. I'd like to sing the praises of the innovations of Sam Walton and his family for putting fortresses on every street corner with ample food and supplies, munitions and clothing, and even first aid. It was truly a visionary tactic that we all thought was simply commercialism run rampant, but it turns out in the aftermath of World War Z that that was a great idea.


Mr. BROOKS: I completely agree. I've been through Indiana, and when I see those signs, God Bless the Waltons, I think that that really speaks to the foresight of this family of being prepared and of - more importantly, being prepared on a communal level: knowing your neighbors, knowing your neighborhood, banding together - doing what zombies don't do, which is organize. I think it's a great tale of heroism.

CONAN: And, of course, the famous - one of the islands that survived in this country, washed by seas of zombies - was in Detroit, the two stadiums there.

Mr. BROOKS: Yes. I think the two stadiums, what you had was groups of people all coming together from around the city, all pooling what little resources they had, not depending on any other external help and really surviving for the duration of the war. I think they really - they're really unbelievable.

CONAN: Mm hmm. Jamon, thanks very much for the call, and the Waltons appreciate your support.

JAMON: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. There were so many lessons - the Iraq War syndrome - looking back, Max, what do you think? How did that play into our lack of preparation for World War Z?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, I think we ignored the backlash that some of us knew were coming in any kind of protracted war. As General D'Ambrosia says in my book, Americans, we expect all or nothing. And we like a smack-down type of war. We're not a war-like people, and if a war drags on too long, we get very war- weary. And we pull back. We get very anti-military. It happened after Vietnam, and it happened after the Iraq War, and I think that's why the U.S. military was so unprepared when this war came upon us.

CONAN: Let's talk with Joe, Joe with us from Manhattan. Joe, are you there?

MATT (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Joe, we were worried. We thought all the zombies had left Hero City, but you're still there. Go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MATT: Actually, this is Matt from Tucson.

CONAN: Ah, oh never mind. Tucson is not Hero City, but go ahead with your question, Matt.

MATT: I'm wondering about the possible threat of international terrorist forces joining with the zombie hordes, creating an unstoppable Islamo-Zombie threat.

CONAN: Max, certainly a question that a lot of people had at the beginning, not so much anymore.

Mr. BROOKS: No, not so much anymore. That was a fear in the beginning, that zombies could somehow be intelligent and could ally with anyone. Well, I think we know now that anybody who tried to ally with the zombies ended up becoming them.

CONAN: There was a ferocious and ruthless arithmetic to the Zombie War. Of course, any human being was a potential zombie. The other way - you know, if you killed a zombie, he was gone. But human beings, when they were killed, they turned into zombies.

Mr. BROOKS: Yes. I think that that was a harsh lesson of the Zombie War was every time we got weaker, they got stronger.

CONAN: Mm hmm. Thanks, Joe, appreciate the call. Actually this is Joe. I think this is Joe, Joe from Manhattan.

JOE (Caller): Yeah, hi, can you hear me?

CONAN: Yes, and I pushed the right button this time.

JOE: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

JOE: I want to set the record straight. George Romero said that if you kill the brain, you kill the zombie. Is that myth or is that reality? Night of the Living Dead - can you tell me the truth on this? Myth or reality: if you kill the brain, you kill the zombie.

Mr. BROOKS: I can go one better. Not only is it the only way to kill a zombie is by killing the brain, but if you actually think about it, it's the only way to kill a human being. Because what are our hearts and our lungs and all our other bodily organs? They're just a life-support mechanism for our brain. When you kill a human being, when you shoot a human being in the heart, you're just killing the mechanism that keeps the brain alive. The zombie brain doesn't need that middleman, that support mechanism. So yes, it is the only way to kill a zombie and really, the only way to kill a human being.

JOE: Okay, thank you very much.

Mr. BROOKS: You got it.

CONAN: Yeah. The terrible discovery that you could lock zombies in a room for years assuming they would die - wrong.

Mr. BROOKS: Yes. They could not wither on the vine, as we learned. It was terrible that way.

CONAN: Again, getting back to the blame, there were so many mistakes made. What about political leadership? One of the people you interviewed: the former White House chief of staff.

Mr. BROOKS: Yes, well you know, he talked about how Americans go in cycles. We used to be very together, militaristic, ready to fight. But then the last brushfire war just took away our will. And suddenly, Americans wanted good times to be here again. They didn't want to hear about a new plague. They were tired of plagues and terror alerts and wars and deprivations. They wanted good times, and any political party that was going to promise good times was going to get elected. So what we learned was this plague came along at the wrong time of our cycle.

CONAN: We're talking with Max Brooks about his new book, a look back at the terrible times we've all been through these past 10 to 12 years: World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us - 800-989-TALK. E-mail us:, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Mike on the line, Mike calling from Rochester, New York.

MIKE (Caller): Oh, hi. Fascinating program, and actually you guys kind of touched on a family problem that we've been having ever since the war died down. Two of my relatives became zombies. One of them was a cousin, and he was our sort of handyman type, so things are kind of breaking down all over the place with him gone. We had to dispatch him, taking off his head with a hacksaw. It made quite a mess. But the other one is my brother-in-law, and we didn't take him out yet. I guess - you know, he's my sister's husband and all that, took care of the family's wills and everything. He's up in the attic.

CONAN: Max, we have a problem here.

MIKE: Yeah.

Mr. BROOKS: It's a very typical problem.

MIKE: But my first question is...

CONAN: Well, let's address this problem. You're not the only person with somebody up in the attic, Mike.

Mr. BROOKS: Well, you said that he's your sister's husband. You know he's not anymore, and I think you know what needs to be done.

CONAN: Mike, are you going to do what needs to be done?

MIKE: I don't know, you know? I mean, he keeps telling us that he's not a zombie, but you know, he's a lawyer. How can I trust him?

Mr. BROOKS: Oh, well, if he's talking - if he's talking, he's faking. Remember that we had those bumper stickers all through Oklahoma. If he's talking, he's faking.

MIKE: With his tax case, do you think?

Mr. BROOKS: Oh, yeah.

CONAN: Mike, thanks very much for the call, and maybe either way -lawyer, zombie, what's the difference, really?

MIKE: I think I'm going to take out the hacksaw.

CONAN: All right. And finally, Max, you were criticized for coming out with this terrible story so early after this conflict. Is it too soon for a movie?

Mr. BROOKS: I don't think so. I think only because the survivors don't have the life expectancy that they did before the war. I think that you now have a breakdown in medicine. You have a breakdown in the environment - poisoned food, poisoned water, poisoned air - so many health problems, so many psychological problems. I think that we need to get these stories out while these people are still with us.

CONAN: Good to see that Brad Pitt agrees with you. Max Brooks, thanks so much.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

CONAN: Max Brooks, the author of World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, and he joined us from our bureau in New York.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.