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A Conversation With Roger Ma, Sensei of Zombie Beatdowns

W: Now, when you were talking to these various experts–and I’m assuming you probably had to divulge what you were working on lest they think you were some wacky serial killer or something–did you ever run into something like, for example, I know somebody who works at the CDC who said that they have run zombie simulations–both fast and slow zombies–not that they think that’s a possibility, but just for the hell of it because they get bored running simulations, and also Jonathan Maberry who did Zombie CSU, among other things, stated that when he has talked to various experts, military police and whatnot, he will go and say “I’m talking about zombies,” and they’ll say, “Fast zombies or slow zombies?” They’ve run the simulations too.

RM: (laughs) That’s hilarious.

W: Did you run into any of that with doing your research with people going, “Oh, yeah, zombies…let me tell you what we do with zombies.”

[ad#rightpost]RM: You know, that’s so interesting. I didn’t run into anybody who had done anything dealing with zombies in the past, but they were very excited when I said I was working on a project like this. The one exception to that is the child psychiatrist I talked to who is Harvard-trained…he actually did a paper on zombies–if you search his name you’ll find it online (Steven C. Schlozman and his paper was discussed here on io9 –W)–and the way I got him was I saw this paper that he wrote about zombies and the scientific analysis of how somebody could actually turn into a zombie or something to that effect. And then I looked at his background and he was a child psychiatrist, and I knew I wanted to write a story about a child psychiatrist in the book. I said, “This guy is tailor-made to be a consultant for me.” So I rang him up and he said, “Awesome! I’d love to do it.” And that’s how I got him on board.

W: That’s fantastic. Now, the other thing I noticed which I really like is that–and what’s sort of interesting and what zombies share with other things, is you can kind of “tailor-make” your own zombie scenario because now we’ve got fast zombies, slow zombies….do you take them down by hitting them in the head, which is normal, or is it a John Russo zombie and it’s even worse…but I kind of like your introduction where you put out the misrepresentations and the misconceptions, which I read as “Okay. This is how I like my zombies to be and these are my rules for zombies for my particular universe.” Is that what you had in mind in setting that up for the “Roger Ma-verse” of zombieism?

RM: Yeah, absolutely. That’s exactly what I wanted to do with that section. Because, like you said, there are so many variations now, especially with the fast ones versus slow, and there are camps that are huge supporters of both. I didn’t want to judge, but I wanted to set forth my universe, saying “Here’s what I perceive as the genre that I’m working in.” And I think that all of our foundations are set upon George Romero’s work, but I think what’s fun now is you’re starting to see some evolution of that. And for me, I’m more of a traditionalist; I don’t like to veer too far away from the basic core canon that Romero set, but I do like to put some variations on it. So yeah, I used that section to set forth, “Here’s the kind of zombie I’m talking about” so people don’t get confused, and try to evolve it slightly based on some things I get in to later in the book.

W: Right. Now, as you were saying, we all have our personal preference of zombies (which sounds weird to say, but it’s true). Was there anything in trying to come up with a realistic–as realistic as possible–zombie combat manual where you said, “This isn’t exactly my personal preference for how this should work, but for the purposes of the book I’m creating, I need to bend it a little bit to make it make more sense or work better for what I’m trying to do.” Did you have to make any concessions to yourself in that way?

RM: Are you referring to the zombie characteristics itself or the techniques that I would use against the zombies?

W: The zombie characteristics, actually.

Dawn of the Dead remake poster

RM: I think I approached it the other way, and this is where I get into my slight variations. I knew I was writing a combat manual, and the tough thing about writing a combat manual about zombies is that people think, “Oh, this is a piece of cake. I’ve seen zombies–I’ve seen slow zombies–I know how to deal with that.” So I needed to evolve it slightly so that the zombie becomes a much more dangerous threat. And the way I did that was kind of making the distinction between when a zombie is in pursuit, which is kind of your standard slow-Romero-walking-shambling zombie, to when they’re attacking, that it being much more vicious. It’s not like you or I picking up a sandwich and taking a bite; it’s actually like a rabid animal attack or a dog attack where it’s really ferocious and really overwhelming. So that, yeah, once they get close to you, it’s almost all over if you don’t know what you’re doing. So I think that’s where I kind of changed it up a little bit, and that I haven’t seen much where it’s specifically detailed the way I did, but I knew that that was something I needed to change if I were to make the zombie a real perceived threat. I think that’s also why people like the running zombie. I’m a slow guy, but I can understand why people like the fast ones, because they’re scary as hell–they feel like a real threat.

W: Yeah, I remember I was reading when James Gunn, who was the screenwriter on the Dawn of the Dead remake, got to the first scene with the little girl and went, “Unless this is a fast-moving little girl, this isn’t going to be scary, and people are going to laugh at it,” and that’s why he switched. So you’ve kind of figured out a way to do the best of both worlds with what you’ve got going on, and you set that up with the very first bit of the introduction which is “I watched this guy who thought he knew what he was supposed to be doing walk up and get his ass handed to him (or gnawed off, as the case may be).”

RM: (laughs) Right.

W: So two questions spring to mind as we get close to wrapping up here. The first question is what comes next? Obviously, Max Brooks went from his own survival manual to writing World War Z, which kind of took the fictional aspects of what he was doing and blew it up. Are you going to zombies for your next book, or are you moving onto The Werewolf Combat Manual? Where does Roger Ma go from here?

RM: You know, I have a couple of projects that I’m thinking about. I think I do have some more zombie in me in terms of projects. I’m not sure exactly how that’s going to materialize, but I know that there are a few more stories to tell. There’s definitely some more interesting stuff to do. I’m not sure whether it’s going to be another manual-type work or maybe a more long-form story, but there’s definitely some more zombie in me.

W: There’s more zombie in all of us, my friend.

RM: (laughs) Yeah.

Zombie Combat Club

W: The other question is not just what you’re going to do next, but what’s next for The Zombie Combat Manual? Like I said, asking if you are a gamer, this could easily be adapted into some kind of a game…or, you know, everything is being optioned for films including cereal boxes these days…Has anybody approached you for taking Zombie Combat Manual to whatever comes next–some other form of media?

RM: Yeah, there have been some inquiries about that. I think it’s an interesting book but you know, I think the manual aspect makes it hard to pin down in terms of transferring over to another medium because there’s not a strict narrative throughout, per se. But I think there are some parts of it that can be evolved into a variety of different types of media, whether that be film or TV or video games or toys…all kinds of fun things I would love to see it develop out. I guess one of the things I’d like to say is that I’m a fan, like I talked about. I’m not somebody who just thought, “Hey, I’m going to write a zombie book because zombies are really popular.” This is one of the things that’s been kind of sitting with me for years, to the point where I was saying, “You know, I would really love to see somebody write this book.” And eventually it got to the point where I didn’t see anybody with any plans to write it, so I said, “What the hell…I’m going to see if I can write this.” So that’s really where it came from. And I really wanted to do something that people haven’t seen before. I know that there’s been some talk online in terms of “Well, is this the same as Max Brooks’ work…what does he do that’s different?” As a fan, I really wanted to make sure I didn’t rehash anything that had been done previously, whether it be Brooks’ work or any other work, because I know if I picked up a book that basically said the same thing another book said but just in different words, I’d feel like “This is no good.” I’d be pissed. So I really tried to be very cognizant of adding something new and not repeating what has already been said by other people. Hopefully that comes through in the book.

Zombieland Survival Rule #1 poster: Cardio

W: I think it does. And the one thing I’ll point out…I know you were talking about the instructional aspects of it and not quite sure what to do with it, but a recent entry into the genre, Zombieland, a great part of its humor came from the instructional asides that came along with it.

RM: I know…you know, that’s so funny you mention that. Zombieland is one of the films that I didn’t see because I wanted to kind of insulate myself a little bit when I was working on the book, and then I just recently saw it a couple months ago and when I saw the rules come up, I was like, “Oh my God…this is hilarious!” It’s so funny because I feel like maybe somebody at Berkeley was taking some influence in terms of the layout or the graphic design because some of the instructional points in my book feel a little bit like that, so it was really fun to see.

W: Right. And that’s up for a sequel, so again, there’s more zombie in all of us, especially Hollywood.

RM: Yeah, definitely. It would be awesome if they would take some of my tips and incorporated them into the sequel.

W: There you go. So if the screenwriters are reading this right now, you can find Roger Ma and I’m sure he’d love to talk to you.

RM: Awesome.

W: Well, cool. Roger, do you have any parting thoughts for us?

RM: I think the last parting thought is I hope the fans really enjoy it. I really wrote this book for the fans. And I think everybody has a little bit of zombie fan in them, but the audience I really wanted to please was the hardcore fans…the ones that really appreciate the genre and really enjoy the genre. You know, we unfortunately don’t see enough good work out there, it comes few and far between sometimes for us zombie fans, so hopefully this is one of the ones that people enjoy.

Thanks again to Roger Ma for hanging out with me for a bit. For more of his work, check out Zombie Combat Club online. And to snag a copy of Zombie Combat Manual for your very own, you can grab it from Amazon here.

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