Jonathan Maberry is a multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning author, magazine feature writer, playwright, content creator, and writing teacher/lecturer. His most recent works include Patient Zero, Zombie CSU, and collaborative work with Fred Van Lente, David Wellington, and Seth Grahame-Smith on Marvel Zombies Return.
John Ottinger: How would you define zombie fiction?
Jonathan Maberry: Zombie fiction, from modern standards, is really "ghoul" fiction. The zombies we discuss are seldom, if ever, the true zombies from Haitian culture and Vodoun (Voodoo). In that religion, zombies are humans who have been given a special potion that puts them in a highly suggestive mental state while at the same time reducing their metabolism so that they appear to be dead. Dr. Wade Davis, the noted ethnobotanist, cracked the formula for this zombie potion and found that the key ingredient was tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin found in puffer fish. Those zombies act as slaves for a bokor, a priest (houngan) for hire who practices dark magic; and those zombies don't eat flesh.
The zombies we write about were first created by George A. Romero in Night of the Living Dead, and were mostly referred to as "ghouls" or "those things." The label "zombie" was attached only after the European release of the Romero films. Romero labeled them the "living dead," and they are corpses who have returned to a semblance of life and who are relentlessly compelled to attack living people and eat their flesh.
JO: What is it that makes zombie fiction appealing to readers?
JM: They're endlessly fascinating because they play on so many of our fears: the loss of identity in ourselves and our loved ones, paranoia, fear of disease, racism, and so on. People often read more into zombie stories than the writer intends, as Romero so often points out when people say that they see Night of the Living Dead as an attack on racism because the hero—a black man—is trapped in a house that is besieged by hordes of white killers. Romero insists that he cast a black man (Duane Jones) because that actor had given the best audition. In later films, however, Romero clearly uses zombies as vehicles to showcase social commentary.
Romero based his story largely on the 1954 novel, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, though in that book the risen dead were vampires. Romero couldn't obtain the rights to that book and therefore made some substantial changes that resulted in the birth of a brand new and quite enduring genre.
JO: Has zombie fiction seen its apex? Or is there more that can be done with the archetype?
JM: Not even close. Zombies are a very elastic storytelling trope, and as such they may ultimately prove to be better for original storytelling than vampires. Consider, in most recent vampire fiction the monster has been severely humanized. He's charming, romantic, tragic, etc. He's become the character, which may be interesting but it also reduces the fear factor and it switches the focus from the human characters to this immortal charmer. Zombies aren't charming, and they don't have personalities. They're walking corpses with no higher functions. They certainly aren't romantic. What they represent in zombie fiction is a constant and universal threat that is implacable and unbearable. That kind of threat puts all of the characters under pressure, and from a storytelling point of view, characters under pressure are the only interesting ones to write about. Under stress, people change, their behavior becomes warped, their facades crack and fall off, and this allows writers to tell complex stories about real people in dreadful circumstances without having to have them react in any way with the monsters other than the way people would if that threat was a tsunami, a plague, or something equally large and emotionless.
JO: Why would you say zombies are scarier en masse than as individuals?
JM: Well, one on one, zombies are weaker, slower, and stupid. At least the Romero zombies are. They are decaying corpses, so they can't possibly be as strong or fast as a human, and they lack the higher functions that would permit them to strategize or adequately react to attacks from humans. They won't block a swing from a baseball bat, for example. So . . . anyone who can pick up a blunt object should be able to drop a single zom.
The fast zoms from movies like the remake of Dawn of the Dead or the infected humans from 28 Days Later are presented as being more coordinated, much faster, and capable of blocking, grabbing, etc. A human should still be able to beat them, but not as easily. En masse it becomes a pure numbers game. Even a horde of puppies could eventually wear down a grown adult.
The thing that makes the hordes of zombies so scary is the fact that there are so damn many of them. A seemingly endless army of the dead . . . more of them coming no matter how many you kill. That's scary as hell.
JO: Most current zombie fiction seems to posit a scientific basis for the creation of zombies, rather than the mystical origins of the original tales. Why do you think there has been a shift from the fantastic to the scientific?
JM: Zombies started out as a science fiction concept. Matheson's influential novel was an attempt to take a horror concept (vampires) and apply science to them. By stripping off the supernatural you bring the "thing" into our real world. It's measurable and quantifiable, but only to a point. Romero stopped short of actually confirming that it was radiation from a returning space probe that caused the dead to rise. But he throws it out there as the most likely cause.
Some writers manage to pull off the supernatural zombies in an effective way. Brian Keene did it with The Rising and David Wellington did it with Monster Island. But few others manage it successfully. For the most part, the supernatural connection weakens the scare factor by removing it too much from the real world. Zombies are at their most terrifying when it seems at least marginally plausible.
Also, zombies are most often allegories for real world threats like pandemics. It's no surprise that there was a spate of zombie films after HIV and Ebola hit the scene; and even more after SARS and the return of previously conquered diseases like smallpox and tuberculosis. Since we can't easily "see" or physically fight a pathogen, zombies allow us to play out the scenario of taking arms and fighting back.
JO: A lot of zombie fiction is closely tied in with a doomsday or apocalyptic scenario. Why are the two so closely linked and is it possible to write zombie fiction that is not apocalyptic in theme? Are there any examples you can think of?
JM: We all love a good apocalypse. Apocalyptic fiction has been big ever since Mary Shelly's The Last Man and H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds. In the post nuclear age, imagining the apocalypse has become way too easy. Many of these stories are attempts to show that in the eleventh hour the survivors of the end of the world will have an epiphany about how humans should have treated one another, or show that if a disaster hits the "reset" button that we'll do better next time. Stephen King's The Stand and Robert McCammon's Swan Song are fine examples of the "redemption via apocalypse" story form, as is the excellent and too-soon cancelled TV show, Jericho. And this is a major theme in my forthcoming novel, Rot & Ruin (Simon & Schuster, September 2010), which is a Young Adult coming-of-age story set fourteen years after the zombie apocalypse.
And some of the genre entries are more cynical, suggesting that a dystopian future is both inevitable and irredeemable. This covers everything from Mad Max to Day of the Dead, as well as the video game series turned movies Resident Evil.
A lot of zombie fiction is apocalyptic, and really it is fun to write that stuff because we all have a bit of the Shiva the Destroyer in us: we love to destroy worlds. It's our moment of godhood by proxy through the magic of creative expression.
On the other hand, there are some novels that are all about preventing the apocalypse. Joe McKinney's Dead City deals with an outbreak that is ultimately controlled; and my techno-thriller, Patient Zero, focuses on a special ops team racing against the clock to stop terrorists from releasing a zombie plague.
JO: How is it that zombies can also be as humorous as they are scary?
JM: We generally laugh when we're nervous, so the more tension you can bring into a situation, the greater the potential for comedy. People make jokes at their own parents' funerals; they crack jokes on the battlefield, and engage in banter on the way to the hospital in the back of an ambulance. People would definitely find humor even in the face of a zombie apocalypse.
In entertainment terms, zombies are—as I said earlier—mindless and devoid of personality. They are a constant threat. So, just as you could set a comedy in the midst of a dreadful war (M*A*S*H), during the destruction of the earth (The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy), or during an attack by a serial killer (Scream), you can find the funny in a zombie attack. Dan O'Bannon was the first to figure that out with his hilarious Return of the Living Dead, and since then we've had a bunch of bloody funny zombie flicks like Ed and His Dead Mother, Dead Alive, Fido, Shaun of the Dead, and the recent Zombieland. What's interesting is that most of these films also have some really frightening moments as well.
Marvel Comics plays with the humor/horror connection in its Marvel Zombies books. I was part of the team that did the recent Marvel Zombies Return, along with Fred Van Lente (writer of Spider-Man), David Wellington, and Seth Grahame-Smith who wrote Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. We kept the horror in place but still played it all for laughs.
JO: How are the zombies of Patient Zero different from the standard?
JM: They're actually pretty close to Romero's living dead, though they're a bit faster. Not quite the Olympic sprinters of the new Dawn of the Dead, but fairly spry. They're also medically created using a prion disease (fatal familiar insomnia) married to several parasites. This is science that is just a short step outside of the bounds of possibility. But only a short step.
JO: What prompted you to explore the ramifications of a real zombie apocalypse in Zombie CSU?
JM:: I've been fascinated with zombies since seeing Night of the Living Dead on its original release in October 1968. I was ten, and it absolutely marked me for life. Zombies scared the bejesus out of me then, and they intrigue me now. I've always wanted to write a book on zombies, and when my editor at Citadel Press asked me for a zombie book, I suggested one in which I would discuss how the real world might deal with events like those described in Night of the Living Dead. The book's release was timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the movie. For that book I interviewed over 250 experts from all areas: forensic science, law enforcement, the military, medical science of various kinds, the clergy, the press, even Homeland Security. Each expert gave his or her opinion about how the infrastructure of modern America would deal with a zombie uprising. The book has become an international bestseller and is now in its third printing, and it's snagged a few awards along the way. So, apparently a lot of folks have been thinking along these lines.
JO: What is the most interesting fact you learned from researching Zombie CSU?
JM: Well, the scientists I interviewed didn't seem to think that zombies were all that far out of the bounds of possibility. In their view, zombies were probably "nearly" dead but not entirely dead, and they went on to explain each of the various qualities of a zombie (the lack of awareness, resistance to injury, etc.) from a sound medical perspective. It was quite chilling, and it's what gave me the idea for Patient Zero.
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