Neil Cohen may not sound like a household name, but he is an author to be reckoned with. Currently promoting his first two published books about a zombie apocalypse, Mr. Cohen is enthusiastic to discuss the genesis of his continuing story of the end of the world as it starts in the great Garden State. I spoke with him recently at the (fittingly) New Jersey Horror Convention in Iselin, NJ.
Jonathan Stryker: Tell our readers about your book, Exit Zero.
Neil Cohen: This is a zombie trilogy that takes place in the state of New Jersey. The first book, Exit Zero, starts with the first 48 hours of the zombie apocalypse. It has a cast of characters fighting their way down the Garden State Parkway and it’s the beginning of the end. The second book, Nuke Jersey, is the sequel and starts where Exit Zero left off. New Jersey is now the center of power for the United States. Washington, D.C. has been destroyed and the White House has been moved to the Garden State. A New Jersey Congressman has become the President of the United States. The third in the series, Zombie Democracy, follows the first presidential election after the first zombie apocalypse.
JS: I’m going to go out on a limb here. Did you grow up in New Jersey?
NC: I did! (laughs) And everywhere that you read about in the book is a real and actual place. You will recognize some of the locations and my characters are very Jersey-centric.
JS: Did you ever read the 1988 novel by Candace Caponegro called The Breeze Horror? It took place on Sea Breeze Island and mentions many other areas of New Jersey. You can get it on Amazon.com. It’s pretty good. I read it nearly thirty years ago.
NC: No, I actually never heard of that. There are some new movies coming about out about the Jersey Devil. Brave New Jersey is a new movie out now about the Orson Welles 1938 War of the Worlds radio drama, and the state just loses its mind.
JS: Where specifically in New Jersey did you grow up?
NC: I grew up in Hazlet, which is exit 117 off the Garden State Parkway and exit 11 off the New Jersey Turnpike.
JS: One of my best friends used to manage what is now called the Cinemark Hazlet 12 on Route 35. That was in the 1990’s, right after they razed the drive-in.
NC: Oh, I used to go to that drive-in all the time as a kid! That was not a pleasant experience for me at all. I remember going in my pajamas and I really hated watching the movie through the windshield!
JS: Do you remember the names of any of the movies that you watched?
NC: Yeah, one was a B-horror movie on a double feature, and of course I don’t remember the name of it. The guy in the movie, and it may have been actor Jan Michael-Vincent, finds an alien gun and a necklace. He wears the necklace and it begins to infuse itself into his skin. When he wears the necklace, he’s able to fire the alien gun. That’s all I remember about it.
JS: The movie that you’re thinking of is called Laserblast. It’s been voted as one of the worst movies ever made. Jan Michael-Vincent wasn’t in it. I only saw it for the first time in the last two years. Believe it or not, it’s coming to Blu-ray soon!
NC: That’s unbelievable.
JS: How did you get into the horror genre?
NC: It’s funny, when I was a kid I had no fears other than zombies. I was completely beyond terrified of zombies. Any zombie movie, and I’m talking well into my 30’s, I couldn’t even watch them. It was just a terror of mine and then I started suddenly forcing myself to watch them. I became obsessed in the other direction! By now, I have probably seen every decent zombie movie ever made.
JS: What do you think about 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later?
NC: The first one I thought was great, the second one I thought was only okay. My book is actually like 28 Days Later. The zombies in my book are not reanimated dead. They are addicted living. It’s a virus that causes a physical addiction to human flesh. I go into detail why the virus was created and what causes that effect in people. These zombies are called “Skells” due to their skeletal appearance. They actually absorb all of their body fat and they are nothing more than walking skin and bones. They must consume human flesh in order to stay alive, but they are alive. Shooting them in the brain actually will not kill them because this virus, like most viruses, lives in their gut and I have a very good origin story for this virus-zombie-tale.
JS: Did you do a lot of research for this? For example, did you study human anatomy and biology in order to make this more plausible and different from what we’re used to?
NC: Absolutely. I’m fortunate enough that my day job as a defense contractor manages to put me in touch with people from the World Health Organization, the CDC, and many, many different facets of the military, as well as first responders. I basically asked them what would happen, what could bring out the zombie virus? What viruses exist today that could replicate the closest thing that we have seen to a zombie virus? Now, everything in my book, while not probable, is possible. There’s nothing in my books that is beyond the realm of possibility. I put a lot of features in the stories about first responders and how exactly they would handle a mass civil unrest such as a zombie apocalypse. There is a system called the Kracken that is actually based on a real system that was trialed by the military
JS: The first zombie film per se that I recall seeing was George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. I got up at 1:30 in the morning to watch a 2:00 am showing of it, thirty-two years ago. This was a very rare showing of the film on television, and I remember being so impressed with how plausible this whole thing was within the context of the film. You really believe that this sort of thing was happening to the characters and they were all emotionally invested in the situation at hand. Despite the fact that it was low-budget and shot in black-and-white, everybody in the movie seemed totally convinced that this was really going on. I think the director did an excellent job of selling that to the audience. What was the first zombie movie that you saw?
NC: That was Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things. I actually saw that before Night of the Living Dead. And I ended up seeing Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead before I saw Night of the Living Dead. I even liked the remake of Dawn of the Dead. I liked the beginning of it and right up to the point they’re becoming zombie killing ninjas, with Mad Max-style vehicles, I checked out after that. My favorite type of zombie movie consists of real people in real situations dealing with zombies. Moms, dads, salesmen – real people from everyday walks of life and how they would respond. I hate it in a movie or in a book when a zombie outbreak occurs and then society is broken into two sections: cannibalistic people who are just insane and zombie killing ninjas. What happened in between?! That’s what I would like to know and that’s what I wanted to cover in my books.
JS: That’s an interesting perspective and your books sound very intriguing. I like it when somebody takes a familiar story and gives it a different slant. I must admit that I don’t recall movies and books about zombies being anywhere near as popular as they are now. With the success of shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead, what do you think is behind the interest in this type of subject matter?
NC: Well, I personally think that the zombie genre will never go away for a couple of reasons. First, it comes down to every single human being’s sole fear, which is death. Zombies are not attractive, and they are not romantic. They cannot be romanticized although I think Warm Bodies made an attempt at it and they did a pretty good job. It is definitely a one-off within the genre. Death is everybody’s fear. If you work out and are energetic and you think that you’re smart, you can probably outlast death for a little while longer, but eventually everybody…always…dies. There’s no getting around that. And then there’s the case wherein you can do everything right in a zombie apocalypse until the torso hiding underneath the car jumps out and bites you in the ankle. And that’s the quintessential scenario wherein you’ve done everything right in life, but you get killed when you suddenly get hit by a car. I think there’s also this feeling that you quite simply cannot trust anyone anymore. With zombies, they are so terrifying because they are your children, they are your neighbors, they are your parents, they are anyone that you’re comfortable with and now they are trying to kill you. It’s that overwhelming sense of unease that you can never really trust anyone.
JS: Where can people buy your books?
NC: You can pick them both up at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com, and the brick-and-mortar Barnes & Noble stores. Zombie Democracy will be released in June 2018. Go to exitzerozombie.com/ for all the info.
JS: Thank you for your time.
NC: Thank you!