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Jewish Journal

Best place to avoid a zombie apocalypse?

by Ryan E. Smith

July 2, 2013 | 11:36 am

Max Brooks

Max Brooks

Max Brooks, son of the comedian behind “Blazing Saddles” and “The Producers,” is convinced that Jews are uniquely positioned to face a zombie apocalypse. And he’s not joking.

“Gentiles don’t understand how truly dangerous the world is. Jews do. It’s part of our national culture,” he said. “We’re the only ones who actually have a national freaking holiday about running for our lives. We call it Passover.”

As the author of “World War Z,” the book upon which the new Brad Pitt movie of the same name is loosely based, Brooks, 41, has given zombies more thought than most. His 2006 book takes the form of an oral history looking back at humanity’s long fight against a pandemic of flesh-eating creatures.

While there are many differences between his book and film that opened June 21 — Brooks played no role in molding the latter, and Pitt’s character (a former U.N. field investigator traveling the world in search of zombie-fighting intel) does not even appear in the former — the Holy Land’s swift reaction to the outbreak of the undead is notable in both. As the threat spreads and other countries struggle to deal with it, Israel distinguishes itself from the rest of the world by walling itself off from its attackers, becoming an island in a sea of zombies.

Brooks said his overall treatment of Israel, which differs in other respects from the movie, was based on real research.

“I’ve studied a lot of Israeli military strategic tactics,” he said. “I’ve studied all their weapons systems, and they’re very practical. … The Israelis don’t have time to screw around. They don’t have the luxury. It made sense to me that if there was a global crisis coming they would be the first to jump on it, because they literally don’t have time to learn from their mistakes.”

To wit: In both versions of “World War Z,” a character says that Israel adopted a policy following the surprise Yom Kippur War in 1973. It requires that if nine intelligence analysts come to the same conclusion about something, it is the duty of a 10th to disagree. No possible threat — not even the undead, apparently — is to be dismissed.

For Brooks, whose funnyman father, Mel, served in World War II, there’s even a parallel to be drawn between zombies and Nazis, who left Jews no hope for negotiation or common ground.

“The fact that I am part of a tribe that was almost exterminated for no other reason than that we existed leaves a pretty heavy mark,” Brooks said. “And that kind of terror is also how I feel when I think about zombies, because they are coming after me no matter what I’ve done, no matter what kind of person I am.”

On the silver screen — where “World War Z” took in $66 million during its first weekend — positive images of Israel abound. The nation’s flags wave proudly as it receives refugees of all faiths, and a soldier more than has a chance to prove her mettle. 

The undead may have their own place in traditional Jewish lore — the golem, for example — but Brooks said his interest in the genre comes from an intensely personal place.

“I was always scared of them,” he said. “They terrified me because they broke what I considered to be the one sort of golden rule of monsters, which is you have to go to find them. … They came to you.” 

A Los Angeles resident who is married and has one son, Brooks first turned his fascination with zombies into the New York Times best-seller “The Zombie Survival Guide” in 2003. It was an attempt, he said, to answer his own questions about them. He remembers seeing his first zombie film when he was about 12.

Brad Pitt in “World War Z.” Photo by Jaap Buitendijk/Paramount Pictures

“For me, the most terrifying moment of it was not the flesh-eating, which was pretty fricking scary. There was a scene in the U.N. where we understood that it was a global problem. And I think that was the thing about zombies — that they’re global. There’s no safe place to go.”

That’s also part of what makes zombies — which are much, much faster in the movie — so popular these days (think “The Walking Dead”), Brooks believes. People are uncertain about the future and don’t want to face their fears directly. Addressing them under the guise of a zombie pandemic makes it more palatable.

“I think there’s a global anxiety that there hasn’t been in a very long time, not since the 1970s,” Brooks said.

Swine flu. Bird flu. Terrorism. Global financial meltdown. Global warming. 

“You name it, it’s coming.”

A historian by trade, Brooks said that “basically everything that happens in ‘World War Z’ has already happened. I didn’t make anything up. I just sort of zombified real historical events.”

Further, he said, “I didn’t really set out to write a message. I think if there is one it is that there are no more local problems. I think the last decade has shown that. Unfortunately, the good old days of American isolation really don’t work anymore.”

Uninitiated moviegoers may be surprised to learn that a zombie thriller was based on a book by the son of Mel Brooks. Still, Max Brooks — who wrote for two years at “Saturday Night Live” and won an Emmy — insists that he’s a zombie nerd at heart. 

The only problem with his last name, he discovered with the release of his first book? Having it land him in the humor section.

Watch the trailer for "World War Z" here:

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