Book Review: The Zombie Survival Guide

April 20, 2020

Cover: The Zombie Survival GuideGiven our circumstances vis-à-vis the COVID-19 outbreak, I’ve had some time to sort through my book collection and stumbled upon The Zombie Survival Guide. I figured it might be fun to write a tongue-in-cheek review that includes some practical advice.

In the wake of American pop culture’s love affair with vampires and werewolves—courtesy of True Blood and the Twilight series—Americans have found a new outside threat to fear—or love—zombies! Although zombies—and more broadly, the undead—have been documented in literature and part of oral traditions throughout human history, they were largely restricted to a small cluster. However, with worldwide air travel, global media, and our current understanding of pathogens, the prospect of a zombie pandemic gained mainstream attention in 2010 in the pilot for AMC’s Walking Dead, an adaptation of the comic-book series of the same name.

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Max Brooks, author of The Zombie Survival Guide, has writing credits for Saturday Night Live, as well as World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which was adapted for film in 2013 and starred Brad Pitt. Brooks is also a fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point, as well as the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. While The Walking Dead franchise has had commercial success—leading to multiple spinoffs, merchandising, and high volume—I submit that Max Brooks has been a luminary on the subject of zombie pandemic preparedness.

And I don’t think I’m alone in my assessment. The concepts that appear in the popular-culture adaptations of zombie lore have led the American Center for Disease Control (CDC), Department of Defense, and US Strategic Command to publish their own guidance on zombie pandemic preparedness.

Okay. Obviously, I’m not suggesting that a zombie apocalypse is nigh, but preparing for an extreme scenario such as this could help us to prepare for more realistic situations such as the one we are in now. As the DOD’s CONPLAN 8888 disclaimer noted:

“This plan was not actually designed as a joke. During the summers of 2009 and 2010, while training augmentees from a local training squadron about the JOPP, members of a USSTRATCOM component found out (by accident) that the hyperbole involved in writing a ‘zombie survival plan’ actually provided a very useful and effective training tool.”

In this book review, I’ll highlight some best practices that Max Brooks has described, focusing on three primary concepts, as follows:

  1. Home Defense
  2. On the Run
  3. Personal Defense

Book Specifications

Title: The Zombie Survival Guide

Author: Max Brooks

Formats: Paperbook, Kindle, and Audible

Publisher: Del Ray

Published: September 23, 2003

Pages: 288

ISBN-10: 1400049628

ISBN-13: 978-1400049622

Home Defense

For most people facing a zombie pandemic—especially when it’s in its initial stages—the home is our first place of refuge. However, different structures have different potential and requirements.

  • homes on stilts—Brooks hypothesizes that zombies can’t climb so suggests that this may be the best type of residential structure in the event of a zombie apocalypse. The significant height of these homes offers the benefit of sound insulation, as well as a good position for surveying and watching out for threats. With a limited number of stairs providing access to the living areas, it would be very efficient to simply destroy or secure these access points, if necessary.
  • two-story homes—Two-story homes offer similar benefits to homes on stilts. However, the undead could infiltrate the ground-floor living area. In the event of a zombie apocalypse, it would be best to bar ground-floor windows and move all survival provisions to the second floor. Brooks suggests destroying the staircase to prevent zombies from accessing the upper floors. I’m not sure I agree with this particular piece of advice because a person with decent handyman skills should be able to build a secure barrier that would allow the use of stairs once the throngs of zombies had dispersed.
  • ranch-style homes—For those living in a single-story home, Brooks suggests that inhabitants secure the first floor, relocate to the attic, and make plans to access the roof.

Apartments and highrises are also options, but the first floor or two should be abandoned for the most part. Different neighborhoods and sections of cities might provide better or worse opportunities for safety and security. In the event of a societal collapse, the wealthier sections—which have emphasized aesthetics and rely on police protection—would become targets. While industrialized areas with high fences and razor wire might not be as pretty, they’ve been built for security.

Brooks discusses other structures that could be viable options, depending on your location and their availability. Warehouses and places of worship can be particularly attractive, but you should avoid supermarkets, banks, and hospitals. If you have access to an offshore oil rig or a well-stocked houseboat or yacht, these can be particularly useful sanctuaries because zombies are not known to have the ability to swim. So, while billionaire David Geffen certainly had the right idea to isolate himself on a 454-foot yacht during the current COVID-19 pandemic, it probably wasn’t a good call to post pictures of it on Instagram, complete with information on his location. It is advisable to keep a lower profile.

Dos and Don’ts for Home Defense

Do: If society collapses, fill your bathtub with water. If water and other utilities get cut off, you’ll need to have a supply of clean water.

Do: Ensure that you have forms of entertainment available that are not electronic. In the current COVID-19 outbreak, I’ve personally been surprised to see that puzzles are in short supply. However, a simple deck of cards could yield dozens of entertaining games.

Do: If you have the space and time, fortify fencing around your yard. This would provide additional living space for you and your family, and the ability to walk outside safely can do wonders for your morale. Chain-link fences are generally strong, but a tall privacy fence would also be effective.

Don’t: Use your phones—unless absolutely necessary. It is expected that circuits would be clogged with people who are panicking.

Don’t: Listen to radio or watch TV. Or, if you do, reduce your consumption to a minimum and keep your TV well hidden. Illumination from televisions can draw attention, as can the sound.

Don’t: Rely on middle- and upper-class conveniences such as home-security systems. They would be of little use during a zombie pandemic. These systems rely on the responsiveness of local police force, which would likely be overwhelmed by an onslaught of the undead.

The Zombie Survival Guide also provides a useful inventory of the goods and supplies an appropriately stocked home should have to prepare for a zombie pandemic.

On the Run

It would be impossible for most people to remain in their homes for an extended period. There is only so much stockpiling a person can do. Plus, if utilities were cut off, food spoilage, sewage and waste disposal, and weather could present risks in addition to the zombies.

It is important to follow some specific guidelines if you need to abandon your home. As when leaving on any trip, you should have a clear destination, a planned route, and some information about your destination. If you do have to relocate, Brooks offers advice on how much of each type of supply each person should carry. You can’t bring everything. You need to be mobile. As in any risky situation, avoid crowds and don’t draw attention to yourself.

In the US, we have various types of vehicles available. While SUVs and pickup trucks are popular, they tend to be highly dependent on gasoline supplies. Gas might be in short supply, or its price may have risen. Surprisingly, one recommendation is an armored car. Although such a vehicle gets poor gas mileage, has no off-road capability, and has poor handling, it could provide a safe place if you were surrounded by zombies. Alternatively, a motorcycle offers good speed and maneuverability, but it offers no protection, and accidents tend to have bad outcomes for the rider.

Instead, horses and bicycles might be the best modes of transportation. Their speed relative to the walking—or even running—dead is an advantage. Plus, given their size, weight, and powertrain, these modes of transportation make many other types of terrain available to travelers. Their independence from any power source other than muscle power makes their use much more sustainable—especially when other fuel sources dry up. Bicycles also have the advantage of providing much-needed exercise.

Personal Defense

Defending your own person can be a controversial subject, but it really comes down to two concepts: preventing injury and arming yourself.

Brooks reviews various types of body armor, including medieval plate armor, chain mail, bulletproof vests, and several others. While they can provide some protection, there are significant downsides to each of them. Armor can be noisy and restrict movement. In the case of bulletproof vests, Brooks’s research has shown that zombies inflict most bites on the limbs, which remain unprotected.

According to Brooks, the best advice is to focus on mobility and limit the number of areas that a zombie could grasp. Tight-fitting clothing is better than baggy clothes in this respect. While cargo pants might seem useful for carrying supplies, their pockets could serve as handles that a zombie could grab. Similarly, keeping the hair short could prevent walkers from grabbing victims and dragging them by their hair.

Anyone who has watched The Walking Dead would be impressed by the diversity of weaponry that people have deployed against the undead. Weapon selection should consider several factors, including familiarity with the weapon, accuracy, and reliability.

Firearms are the main go-to for many people in the US, but they are not all that effective in the case of a zombie apocalypse. A significant downside is that the noise an unsuppressed firearm makes can attract more zombies. Shotguns can be very effective in dispatching the undead, but their range is limited, and it is vital to keep zombies as far away as possible. Brooks suggests that a semi-automatic rifle—such as an M1A or SKS—might perhaps be the best choice because it provides control and accuracy. Of course, if assault rifles are your preference, the AK-47 and its variants are considered to be the best assault rifles ever made, given the power of its round, reliability, and acceptable accuracy at range. Handguns could also work, but you might need to get too close to the zombies for comfort.

Remember, whatever firearm you choose, you should use it only in single-shot mode. Shot placement is much more important than rate of fire or the quantity of rounds fired. As we are seeing in the current COVID-19 outbreak, ammunition would likely be scarce, and you wouldn’t want to waste it. This is just one reason that Brooks advises against the use of machine guns.

Melee weapons and bladed implements are also effective, but their use requires practice. Another significant downside of these weapons is that you would need to get up close and personal with a zombie attacker, which increases your risk of both personal injury and contamination.

The best advice in the case of a zombie apocalypse—and generally, in any crisis—would be to avoid confrontation. Stay hidden and live another day.


We are living through a time when our assumptions about society and safety are being challenged in ways we never thought possible. Despite warnings about the potential for pandemics, many individuals and institutions are finding themselves unprepared to cope. Even people whose homes are generally well stocked with food and other goods might encounter scarcity in other areas—for example, bandwidth. The larger numbers of people working from home are putting a strain on Internet traffic.

While The Zombie Survival Guide is firmly grounded in parody, it presents an entertaining view of how to prepare for and deal with the unexpected—whether pandemic, natural disaster, failed state, or the rise of the undead. 

Owner and Principal Consultant at Covalent Studio LLC

Akron, Ohio, USA

D. Ben WoodsBen’s global design and technology firm specializes in software design and development for the Web, mobile, and ecommerce. The company serves clients ranging from small startups to some of the largest companies in the world, including General Electric, Rio Tinto, and Fidelity. His career in User Experience began in the late 1990s. Ben has held diverse roles, including UX management at a global B2B firm, full-time and part-time academia, and executive roles. He enjoys solving complex business problems and coaching talent to be competitive UX design professionals. Ben earned his MS in Information Architecture and Knowledge Management at Kent State University and is a graduate of the Executive MBA program at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. He has presented long-format talks, speed presentations, and posters at many conferences and events and has conducted training and workshops for organizations throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.  Read More

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