Zen and the Art of Skull-Impaling
Berkley Trade, 2010
Considering the fact that zombies have a weaker literary tradition than most monsters (vampires, werewolves, salespeople) it’s been a delightful surprise that so much has been written about the undead over the past few years. And while many of these books have been fun and thrilling I’ve sometimes felt that they were doing the general reading public a bit of a disservice, often giving us literary fluff in place of good, solid, practical info. Yes, it’s fun to read about zombies infesting Jane Austen’s Britain, or finding out how the traditional zombie fits in with the modern teenager (all too well, it turns out), but what I really want to know is: when the time comes, how many undead I can put out of commission before I have to sharpen my machete? Thankfully Roger Ma has written The Zombie Combat Manual: A Guide to Fighting the Living Dead to fill just this need.
People I know often introduce me as a “zombie expert” (a telling detail about my social circles? I prefer not to think about it). This is usually followed up by a comment to the effect that when (not if, interestingly) the zombie apocalypse starts, I should be the first person everybody finds, because I’m the best prepared for the onslaught. My scripted reaction is to take the compliment, puff up my feathers a little bit, and remind everyone that they should buy me a beer to stay on my good side. But it’s all a brave façade: I have actually very little idea how to defend myself again a zombie.
Oh, I know more than your average civilian about which weapons might be better than others, because I’ve logged an extensive (excessive? Again, not thinking about it) hour-count absorbing all the zombie media out there, but I’m not sure how helpful that would be when it comes down to actual blows. For example, I know that a machete is better than a gun, mostly because you never have to reload a machete, but if you give me a blade of that size, I would have no idea what grip would be best, or how I could swing at a zombie while protecting my forearms from their infected, chomping jaws. And where should I aim this swinging blade? What part of their skull would be the best to take a blow? Roger Ma not only knows the answers to all of my questions, but he wants you to prepare yourself as well as he has been prepared.
Ma writes the book in a world where the dead have risen, only certain regions of the globe are considered “safe zones,” and a lot of trial and error has lead him to create one very thorough combat guide. No undead combat topic is left uncovered. In fact, as I was reading through it I kept trying to think of loopholes that might not be discussed – and each time I thought I’d out-smarted Ma, he would have a new chapter and go into such depth and description on the topic I ended up feeling terrible that I had ever doubted him. He also supports a lot of his advice with firsthand accounts of people who’ve been affected by the zombie plague and have advice to offer to his readers, and really, how can you beat that?
Topics covered range from combat attire (clothing not too tight, nor too loose, face masks, shin guards, etc.) to which types of baby strollers are best for running from the dead while keeping your tot alive. Ma covers different combat approaches in bad weather and the best part of a zombie’s head to hit when you are trying to take it down. Actually, he covers which part of the zombie’s head to strike with each type of weapon, long range to close range, how often you will need to maintain that weapon to keep it in the best shape possible for the next attack, and which type of weapon you should choose for your body type. It’s all very thorough, the way undead-combat manuals oughtta be.
Ma spends quite a bit of time reminding the reader that fighting off the dead is nothing like fighting off the living. He includes testimonies from soldiers to verify that you need to reinvent the wheel when you are fighting off these ghouls. For example, zombies don’t stop to catch their breath (didn’t think of that, did you?). Zombies won’t wince in pain if you chop off their arm, or if they stub their toes. Heck, they’ll keep coming even after their legs are chopped off, so you’d better aim for the head (in particular the soft bit under their jaw), destroy their brain and keep moving. Everything in this book is focused on helping you save your own rump when (again, not if) the undead come after you.
To further aid in your zombie preparedness, Ma includes a guide for fitness to get in undead-fighting shape. He focuses on first identifying what your body type is, what your strengths are, and what type of weapon suits you. Everyone has both positive and negative characterizes in this regard, and he believes that being truthful to yourself about what your limits are will only help you in the end. If you’re extremely muscular, he warns that you might have to sacrifice essential speed if you keep your muscles built up. If you are carrying around some extra weight around the middle, you too might lose some speed; however being too skinny means that you do not have many fat reserves, which you will need to survive when (needless to say, not if) the dead rise. Ma encourages everyone to keep up with a strict, and thoroughly accounted, exercise regime. The logging of exercise time fulfills two goals, he explains:
Log your time and repetitions and always try to best your previous numbers. Not only will this meticulous record keeping help increase your fitness levels, it can help preoccupy your mind while the living dead pound against the exteriors of your fortification.
It is this attention that also helps mentally prepare us for the zombie apocalypse.
While The Zombie Combat Manual is a fantastic guide for undead combat, the personal stories and accounts from people who have been on the front lines against these ghouls make the book infinitely more readable and personal. These interviews together nearly rival Max Brooks’ World War Z as the best oral history ever written of the zombie outbreak. However, the interviews here are presented as consultations to support Ma’s arguments for certain battle tactics or weapon choice. In addition, these accounts are also very moving. On more than one occasion I felt a twang on my zombie-loving heartstrings. Here is part of an account from a grocery store clerk who is closing his store as the zombies are approaching town:
We finally gave up and let whoever was in, stay in, and began locking down the gates. Al and a couple of others managed to get them closed, but through the metal slats we saw more and more people headed for our entrance. They were screaming, begging or us to open up. Behind them I saw at least seven first trucks and ambulances speed past. Al wanted us to open the gates, saying that we had plenty of room on the floor, but I nixed that idea quick. An hour passed, and the crowd outside just kept growing larger and more frantic. Some held up their babies, pleading for us to just take their children, if not them. That’s also when we started hearing the moans in the distance….
Not the type of account that you’d expect to find in a combat manual, but one of dozens you’ll find here. They do help you prepare for the zombie outbreak by preparing you logistically and mentally for all such incidents you’re bound to encounter when (not if, you know) the outbreak comes to your town. And if you have trouble reading these accounts because they terrify you, Ma does have a chapter on the emotional training you will need to go through to prepare for the dead rising (this part can also be used to good effect at Passover or … ahem … Easter).
In addition to the emotional and physical instruction that The Zombie Combat Manual outlines, Ma readies you for the zombie epidemic by educating you as much as possible about zombies. He dispels common zombie myths (they can’t actually run; they can’t be trained as servants, and they’ll feast on any flesh, not just brains) and shows you the best places to hit a zombie’s head for maximum impact (remember, under the jaw and between the eyes are good sweet spots)(I believe the I Ching says the same thing about the living, but I haven’t checked to be sure). My favorite diagram in the entire book is a chart that shows zombies in various states of decomposition, and then shows you the corresponding speeds that they can travel. Knowing a zombie’s speed can help you stay ahead of them when fleeing, and also remind you that the zombies will stop at nothing to go after a potential meal. Even that legless zombie will still be coming after you, and Ma makes sure that you know how long it will take them. He really did think of everything, in his quest to keep you alive.
The Zombie Combat Manual is a wonderfully thorough and readable guide. When (I’m telling you, not if) the zombie outbreak does come, I now feel thoroughly prepared to keep myself safe and to aim for exactly the right fleshy bits of the head. So when I’m introduced as a zombie expert, I can now tell you that a beer will buy you a little extra protection against the hordes of zombies that will soon be at your doorstep.
Deirdre Crimmins lives in Boston, wrote her Master’s thesis on George Romero, and works too much.