After writing 2003's "The Zombie Survival Guide," Max Brooks made his first public speaking appearance. He nervously told the crowd about growing up as the son of Hollywood royalty Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, about being an Emmy-winning writer for "Saturday Night Live" and about writing his improbable bestseller. Then it was Q&A time.
"All of the questions were like, 'What if I'm bitten on the arm? Can I cut my arm off?'" he recalled. "They were all zombie questions."
Zombies trump everything else these days. More than 40 years after George Romero's groundbreaking film "The Night of the Living Dead" sent them lurching into the mainstream media, zombies have reached critical mass.
The riotously hilarious "Zombieland" is the No. 1 film at the box office. Brooks' latest fright of the living dead, the graphic novel "The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks," just came out. And Minneapolis is gearing up for Saturday's Zombie Pub Crawl, which could draw more than 5,000 people to the West Bank near the University of Minnesota.
Zombies crave living-human flesh, especially brains, and one bite will turn the victim into a zombie. But they've evolved since Romero's 1968 low-budget masterpiece, which had the walking dead lumbering along the countryside after being reanimated by radiation from a satellite. These days, zombies are agile and more likely to be infected by a virus, as in "28 Days Later."
The realism of that 2002 film initially attracted 19-year-old University of Minnesota student Andrew Graham to zombies. Then he read Brooks' "The Zombie Survival Guide" and his 2006 follow-up novel, "World War Z," and thought: "This is me. He's writing from right out of my head."
Graham is no ordinary zombie enthusiast. A year ago, the graphic-design major from Plymouth founded the Minnesota Association for Zombie Enthusiasts (MAZE; www.wix.com/uofmmaze/zombie), a student group at the university. It now has 80 members who meet each Sunday and organize outings such as attending a pre-release screening of "Zombieland." Graham hopes next semester to start a campus-wide taglike game of Humans vs. Zombies, a growing college pastime in which students playing zombies (wearing headbands) try to "infect" regular students, who use Nerf guns to ward off attacks.
One thing MAZE won't be doing as a group is the Zombie Pub Crawl (www.zombiepubcrawl.com), Graham said, because its members are underage. But more than 5,000 other people indicated on the event's Facebook page that they might participate in the Zombie Pub Crawl.
"This is our fifth year doing this and, like anything that people enjoy, it's simply gotten bigger every year," said co-organizer Chuck Terhark, 29, a senior editor at Metro magazine who lives in northeast Minneapolis. "Our first year doing it, we had about 150 people, and we thought it was the greatest thing in the world. But now, 5,000 zombies -- that's a completely different monster."
Starting at 4 p.m. Saturday at Gold Medal Park, zombie-costumed participants will amble from bar to bar -- 15 in all -- concluding with a late-night party at the Cabooze. "Let's paint this town DEAD," the site says.
But why all the fuss over zombies?
"I think the reason for their popularity is that zombies are kitschy, and kitschy is anti-snob," said Leslie Bock, 43, the owner of Donny Dirk's Zombie Den, a themed bar in Minneapolis. "Anything snobby right now is not cool, which has become painfully evident in the world of fine dining and high fashion."
Zombies are also good for these uncertain times, Brooks said. "Zombies are scary, but they're a safe scary," he explained, at a time when real-world ills include war, terrorist attacks, economic meltdown and health scares.
"If you did a movie about swine flu and how it killed millions of people around the world, I don't know how many takers you'd get," the author said. "But with zombies, you get to look at the world and you get to see real elements of the apocalypse. Society breaking down, how we're going to get food and medical supplies, our neighbors turning on each other -- all of that is prevalent in a zombie story. But at the end of the day, it's still zombies."
Lest casual observers think that zombie infatuation is just a guy thing, female moviegoers made up 44 percent of the opening-weekend audience for "Zombieland," according to Exhibitor Relations (via distributor Sony). Terhark said participation in the Zombie Pub Crawl is split evenly between men and women, and the same goes for MAZE, according to Graham.
Bock said, "Women like zombies because zombies are like men, in that they're brainless and have only one body part on their minds. Plus, zombies aren't complicated creatures; they're simple with no hidden agenda."
Forget about vampires and "Twilight," added Sara Hvizdak, 19, a sophomore at the University of Minnesota who is an officer in MAZE.
"While 'Twilight' is the obsession of many girls, there are just as many disinterested in the romantic genre," said the double major in art and psychology, who's from Wisconsin. "Many people I know, guys and girls included, would rather see a good zombie thriller than a chick flick."
But the craze goes beyond the living dead.
"What some people don't understand is that the zombie craze isn't all horror films," Hvizdak said. "A lot of what MAZE is promoting is survival, which any gender can take part in. This can include defending one's self and planning ahead, because once you're prepared for one apocalypse, you're prepared for almost all of them."
That line of thinking is exactly why Brooks calls his public-speaking appearances, which include a visit Monday to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, "self-defense lectures." Zombie fans revel in knowing the rules of survival, just in case -- something that "Zombieland" sends up beautifully.
"There are always rules," Brooks said. "It started with Romero: You destroy the brain, and you destroy the ghoul. That was rule No. 1; it was in 'Night of the Living Dead.' You need to have rules. A fantasy has to be rooted in reality. Once you establish a logical framework, you can go anywhere."
Brooks capitalizes on that in "The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks," which posits that zombies have been around since the dawn of humans and have shaped our history more than anyone realizes.
It also helps that zombies are already dead, so there are no repercussions to dispatching them. That could be at the core of zombiedom, said MAZE founder Graham: "For some reason, people find killing zombies very enjoyable."
Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542