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A Conversation With Roger Ma, Sensei of Zombie Beatdowns

W: But the other thing that occurs to me: you were talking about the breakdown of society and being able to watch that happen, it almost seems that is that it’s a “safe” way to put ourselves into that apocalypse, because really the fact that they’re zombies is incidental. It could be anything that brings about “the end of the world as we know it,” and maybe it’s just easier to look at it that way through something that we know “Oh, well, we know that would never actually really happen,” when we know it’s really quite close to reality in some aspects. What are your thoughts on that?

[ad#rightpost]RM: Yeah, it’s a terrific point. One of the things I do with besides work and writing is I volunteer for this CERT program…which is the community emergency preparedness team (its full title is Community Emergency Response Team). What this team does is–they have them all across the country and they’re organized by the Office of Emergency Management to help out during times of crisis; now, that could be a natural disaster or something manmade like terrorism or something like that, and it really came about a lot, obviously, after 9/11, and I think that preparedness is on a lot of people’s minds a lot more than it was previously. So I do think that there’s an element of that to the type of individual that’s attracted by the zombies, because you’re exactly right–it kind of gives them an outlet to think about these situations, where in fact something might happen. You know, it’s not going to be zombies, but it could be any number of other things. I think that’s why we’re also seeing kind of a resurgence of interest and excitement and we’ve seen a lot more zombie projects. Because, hey, this could be any number of other things like H1N1, like a terrorist attack, like some sort of…what else are we dealing with…anthrax…all of these kind of manifestations of societal breakdown can be put in place of what we normally think of as not being able to happen whcih is the zombie apocalypse.

W: Right. And that’s interesting that you bring up the…I’ve actually read or heard some interesting lectures looking at horror in the time that it was and the response of horror to the era that we live in, and it is interesting that if you think about it, before 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead (I call what we’re in now the “Zombie Renaissance”), before those two films, apart from your average, low budget, I-need-to-do-something-cheap-so-let’s-do-a-horror-movie-with-a-zombie-in-it, it was really 1985 that was the last year where you really had a lot of high-profile zombie stuff in it and suddenly it’s back and it’s all over the place.

Zombie Movie Chart
The chart about to be mentioned. Click to go to the source.

RM: Yeah, and you know, I think I saw this interesting chart too that shows the general feeling of the country in terms of being optimistic or pessimistic, and during those pessimistic times is when the most zombie-genre material came out and was most popular, so I really feel like it could be mapped to the general feeling of the country: the more pessimistic or depressed the general society is or disenfranchised they are, the more this kind of scenario is popular.

W: Right. So getting back to the stories that are part of The Zombie Combat Manual….what came first, or did they kind of evolve at the same time–the instructional stuff or the fictional stuff? How did that evolve?

RM: I think they evolved about the same time. I knew that if it was going to be a strictly instructional manual that even though it might be fun to read and certainly entertaining, it might be a little bit dry at times, so I thought, “What’s a good way to kind of break up the instructional side with something different?” And I always wanted to tell these particular stories from the voices that you normally don’t hear from. You know, in the zombie genre, we always hear from the soldier or the expert martial artist, or somebody in a militia…somebody like that, someone who’s well-prepared to handle the situation. I wanted to have some of that, because I think some of the stories mix well with that type of character, but I also wanted to hear from those kinds of people that you normally don’t hear from who I thought could tell a compelling story. A good example is the store manager…I really wanted to tell that story because one of the things we talked about, kind of holding up in a mall, and it’s funny how people don’t generally say that, that’s evolved into “I’m going to go to Costco.” Or I’m going to go to some big box retailer.

W: Something that’s the size of a mall.

RM: Exactly, the funny thing is that the place may have changed but the theory behind it has stayed the same, and when I think about that situation, it’s not the zombies that screw us over in those situations…it’s the other humans.

Walking Dead

W: Oh, exactly. That’s what I try to tell people who say, “Oh, I don’t want to watch that zombie stuff.” I tell them, “No, you don’t understand.” Especially the Romero films…the first three especially, is that they’re not really movies about zombies. My contention is that they’re movies about people and how people act: and…the house, the mall, the military base, they’re all microcosms for “If we could just get our shit together and work together, maybe we could survive this,” but we never do in Romero’s world, and we’re always screwed.

RM: The one thing I kind of realized a while ago about zombies is that it’s never about the zombies. It’s always about something else. And you know, there’s subtext in everything, but I think particularly for this genre and what interests me more is the kind of psychological aspect of people’s behaviors as a result of being thrust into this situation. I think a great example of that that’s going on now is Kirkman’s Walking Dead series.

W: Oh yes.

RM: He recognizes that this is about the human dynamics of people thrust together in a kind of untenable situation, and that’s why I think that series is so great. Some people say, “oh, there’s not enough zombies….I want to see more zombies,” but there’s stuff behind it that you have to get into…it’s about the characters. I think another great example of my influence is John Carpenter‘s The Thing…a great movie that’s more about the human psychoses when you’re put into this claustrophobic situation when you don’t know who to trust. I think that really transfers over well to the zombie genre.

W: That’s very true, and the other piece I always think about with Romero, especially the first four films, is that he always has some kind of socio-political message going on. More horrible than any other moment in the original Dawn of the Dead (since that’s my favorite of all the zombie films), is when Roger says, “We whupped ’em and we got it all.” And it’s like the most empty, hollow, horrible thing….and you’re watching it as a kid and you may not get it at all…but you watch that now and it’s absolutely chilling. I mean, that’s scarier than anything else in the film is the emptiness of their lives.

RM: (laughs) Yeah.

W: So let me ask you, because you do have a lot of information in here, and not just in all of the various stats that come along with the weapons…and I do have to say, my favorite part of the stats is you actually have things like “This is good for 25+ zombie kills.” It’s like you could literally be sitting there saying, “Hmm….I’ve got a crowd of fifty…what do I need to deal with?” I love that aspect of it. It’s like a shelf-life for weaponry…it’s fantastic.

Nick Frost and Simon Pegg from Shaun of the Dead
The shovel? Better pick. According to Ma, around 100+ zombie kills. The cricket bat? More durable than a baseball bat, which is 20+.

RM: Right…thanks. I wanted it to be very specific, and part of that was just the fun of the analysis, but also kind of putting that realistic bent to it, like a good example is the baseball bat: you know, everybody picks up a baseball bat. But again, putting as practical an aspect to the situation as possible, look, a wooden baseball bat isn’t going to last you very long in this situation. How long is it going to last? Well, okay, let’s put an estimate on it based on a little bit of analysis that was done, and that kind of thing. I tried to really be as authentic as possible, because I know as a fan myself, whenever I see situations–either read books or see movies–where I know it’s inauthentic, even though we’re talking about a fictional situation, it rings a little hollow…so trying to put that practical face on it was really important.

W: It can take you right out of the movie or right out of the book if you’re sitting there going, “What??”

RM: Yeah…and you want to suspend your disbelief, in a certain respect, but you also don’t want to take yourself too out of the picture. That’s what I hoped to kind of get across with the fine details of the weaponry and the descriptions and the research into the characters.

W: Right. And with these stats, I must ask…are you a gamer?

RM: I am. I definitely am. I’m not a hardcore gamer–I think I was in my younger years, but throughout my life I’ve been kind of in and out of the gaming scene. So yeah, I definitely have a history of gaming.

W: It shows. To your benefit, I must say.

X-Com

RM: One of my favorite moments (and this is probably dating my gaming history), but I think all of us have those moments…one of my fondest memories is playing X-Com—I’m not sure if you’re familiar with that–

W: That was the squad-against-the-aliens game, correct?

RM: Yes, it was UFO defense and it was such a great game…it involved a lot of research on alien weaponry so that you could upgrade your weapons, and I distinctly remember playing that until I could hear the chirping outside of the birds from being awake all night and it was still 6:00 in the morning before I got to bed…so you know, that kind of aspect is part of why I wanted to be so detailed in the analysis.

W: Very cool. Now let me ask you, with all this analysis you’re talking about that went into trying to make it as realistic as possible…and you are in the stories talking with the out of the way people like the store manager but also soldiers and stuff…how much research in talking to real live people did you do in putting this together?

RM: Oh, yeah, that’s a great question. I tried to get an expert in every one of the fields that I wanted to address. So I kind of knew I wanted to have various sections in the book–I wanted to have a section on anatomy, on weapons, on combat techniques—those I knew were going to form the kind of “foundation” of the book. And for each of those sections (again, getting back to wanting to have an authentic voice), I said, “I need to have a consultant for each of these sections.” So for the anatomy section, I consulted with an orthopedist, somebody who specializes in the bones and the skeletal system. For weapons, I talked to both a medieval historian–somebody who’s one of those medieval re-enactment actors for a lot of the medieval stuff–and I talked to a bladesmith, a knifemaker, and I got a tour of his shop to see how he actually goes about making knives. Then for the combat stuff I talked to this awesome close-combat expert called Michael Janich–and all of these guys are in the back of the book and if you turn to Acknowledgements, you’ll see them–who for a living, he teaches close-quarters combat. And I talked to a couple other people in the military–one is a Navy Seal, another is a guy who does drug raids, so I tried to get an expert for each of the different sections and also each of the different combat reports if I knew that I was going to need an authentic voice to validate the story that I was telling.

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