Woodrow was then taken to the next room, an area that looked much like a prison. He looked through a large glass window to a section where multiple “test subjects” were held in side by side cells, which more resembled cages. They were emaciated, yet some had large, distended stomachs. Their eyes were rolled up, mouths gaping open, standing slack shouldered. Some sat against the wall, some lay on the ground. Some appeared dead.
“These subjects are in the final stage, originally reached within 5 to 7 days after first treatment,” Dr. Moz explained. “The poor souls you saw will be at this stage by tomorrow. The process speeds up with each successive exposure.”
When they entered through a high security door leading into a corridor of cells, the subjects went wild, reaching, grabbing, trying to force their faces through the bars, biting, moaning, and shrieking. Some slammed their heads against the steel bars, attempting to get at their prey. One man ran towards the group and slammed his face against the bars with such force his cheekbones and jaw shattered, sending his teeth scattering onto the floor. The guards became visibly nervous, placing hands on their holstered guns, as if getting ready for a quick draw competition.
“How long will they live?” Woodrow asked, approaching one of the caged patients.
Dr. Moz shot out his arm to prevent Woodrow from getting too close to the skeletal subjects.
“These are no longer living.” He sighed. “These are the dead.”
“I understand they are beyond saving, but when will they truly die?” Woodrow asked.
“You don’t understand,” Dr. Moz said. “These are the dead.”
Moz removed a guard’s pistol from its holster. He put the barrel of the gun to the head of one of the caged subjects and fired point blank into the forehead. The top of the man’s head exploded.
Woodrow recoiled in horror and shouted his confused objection, but was silenced when he observed what happened next. The subject, who’d had his brains blown out, did not collapse to the floor in a crumpled dead heap, but only stumbled backwards a few steps. The gunshot victim then straightened himself upright and again begin reaching through the bars again, biting at the doctor.
Dr. Moz pointed the gun to the temple of another caged subject and pulled the trigger, this time blasting off the entire top of the target’s head above the bridge of the nose. Again, the creature arose, minus three quarters of his head, yet the body kept reaching and what was left of the jaw was still biting.
Woodrow stood motionless, speechless.? ? ? ?
Dr. Moz then fired a single bullet into each of the now nearly headless men’s stomachs, causing them to crumple to the ground, finally still. He handed the gun back to the guard, turned towards Woodrow and spoke in a tone that seemed relieved he had someone with whom to finally share this knowledge. “And my friend, that is not the strangest thing I am going to show you.”
Minutes later, Woodrow stood on unsteady legs in the mortuary area. On a steel table lay a body covered by a sheet. Dr. Moz lifted the sheet to expose the cadaver’s head, displaying that the cranial cap had been removed, and the brain was nearly gone; almost liquefied.
“At first, we thought this was some sort of spongiform encephalopathy, perhaps the Mad Cow Disease had spread to humans,” Dr. Moz explained. “And, in this particular instance, that would be a very likely possibility.”
Woodrow focused on how he said “this particular instance”. Mad Cow was caused by cows eating ground up cow bodies in their feed. He wondered what that scenario had to do with his research. The whole point of his theory was to avoid the raising, feeding, housing, and slaughter of livestock.
“Although the test subjects have become almost skeletal, their stomachs continue to expand. At first, we thought it was retention of gas and fluid. We were wrong. We could have never imagined what was really occurring in the stomachs of these poor souls.”
An assistant in a lab coat pulled back the sheet all the way, displaying the cadaver’s full body. It was a male whose stomach had been sliced open for autopsy, the vivisection displaying a stomach lining that had taken on features resembling those of a human brain.
“It is as it appears. And it does not just resemble a brain, it is functioning like a brain.”
Neil A. Cohen is the first-time author who created the novel Exit Zero—available on Amazon and Permuted Press. Exit Zero is a story about the zombie apocalypse, which began in New Jersey. The reviews have been nothing short of spectacular and William Morris Endeavor (WME) has entered into an agreement with Permuted Press to represent the film rights of the novel Exit Zero. I met Neil at a comic-con in Morristown, New Jersey (sans zombies) and we discussed doing an interview for Indyfest. Here we are a few months later.
IM: How did you get into writing? Is it part of your background, day job, or a hobby that paid off for you? NAC: I never wanted to write a book. I never wanted to read a book. But I am a zombie genre fanatic, and also a purist. I had an idea for what I thought was a truly original story set in the very beginning of the Zombie Apocalypse (ZA), and I wanted to share it. My day job is providing technology to first responders and the military, so I had lots of subject matter experts to bounce ideas off of to make the story as realistic as possible, yet still with a touch of sci-fi.
IM: Who are your biggest influences as a writer? NAC: I love zombie anthologies, but Max Brooks’ WWZ (the book, not the movie) was what inspired me the most. I also like the style of Bret Easton Ellis when he wrote Less than Zero.
IM:You must be living the dream. Your first novel is a critical hit and its film rights are with WME. How does it feel to be an “overnight success”? NAC: Depends on the definitions of “overnight” and “success”. I began writing the book in 2011 with a short story. I kept adding to the story and pestering people to read it. I finally decided I wanted to try and write a book in 2013, so it took a couple years. As for success, I have not achieved that financially for sure; self-promoting a book, any book, is an expensive proposition. I am just so thankful and grateful to anyone that took a chance and bought it, either on line or from me at a con. I am so happy when people like the story. I can chat about ZA all day long.
IM: Give us a snapshot of your life as a writer. The beginnings, the challenges, the successes and how you overcame any roadblocks. NAC: I don’t consider myself a writer yet, as I only have one published book, one yet-to-be-published short story, and I am working on a second book. If that one comes out, and is published and well-received, I will reconsider if I am truly a “writer”. The biggest challenge of writing is having people read and review your work. No one wants to read your drafts. Not your friends, family, or loved ones. If you are lucky enough to find someone nice enough to read it, they probably will not give you honest feedback, as they are nice. You need to hear brutal, unfiltered commentary. You need to take it and not push back or argue. And best way to get that is to pay an unbiased person. But when you get that feedback, the most important feedback is technical. Sentence structure, tensing, misspellings, or incorrectly-used words are killers. As for content, you have to go with your gut. If someone says a word is misspelled, fix it. If someone says your story sucks, screw them? that is just an opinion.
IM: On a lighter note, how did you get Jersey Shore’s Nicole “Snookie” Polizzi to endorse your novel? NAC: My publisher had asked me to get celebrity blurbs for my book. A blurb is a word or a sentence expressing something positive about your book. I was watching one of the entertainment shows, either Access Hollywood or TMZ (as I am obviously an intellectual), and I saw Nicole being interviewed about her gig on Dancing with the Stars. She mentioned that she loves The Walking Dead. I reached out to her via fan mail and sent her a pre-release version of the book with a request for a blurb. She tweeted out her response a couple months later, then emailed me to ask if I saw it. I had just set up my Twitter account, but had no idea how to use it. So I went searching, found it, thanked her, and we struck up an email friendship. She is very sweet.
IM: How will she be involved in any potential film of the book? NAC: That is up to her. She is bringing the sizzle. I am fine with anything she wants to do.
IM: Zombies are a big deal in media and entertainment. What do you bring to the table that sets you apart from other zombie stories? NAC: I approached from several different angles. There were so many elements that were never addressed in zombie books and movies and I wanted to focus on those. That is why mine is set at the very beginning (please note, this was way before Fear the Walking Dead). I wanted to explain exactly how the zombie infection comes to be, why those infected must do what they do, and what the purpose of the pandemic was. Also, in ZA genre, it jumps from everyday citizens to zombie-killing ninjas and psycho cannibals. What happens in between? Society does not collapse that fast and people are who they are. I wanted normal people in abnormal circumstances.
IM: Your job allows you to interact with many agencies within the federal government and the military. Can you tell us a little about your work? NAC: I sell specialized software that is focused on chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear preparedness and response. Nothing too sexy; basically a software salesman. But I get to meet a lot of very cool and interesting people, and spend a lot of time on military installations and in foreign countries. So it can be fun.
IM: What challenges did you face when trying to research all the possible scenarios involving a zombie plague? Did you get any weird looks from the NSA or any government officials? No, because I have been with the same company, selling the same product for fourteen years. Everyone in the community knows me and knows about my zombie fascination. Military and first responders love the zombie genre, and are really into pre- and post-apocalyptic concepts.
IM: You obviously go above and beyond to add layers of authenticity and plausibility to your zombie world. How do you balance the explanations of why something is happening with the actual narrative you are writing? NAC: It is tough, as I am not that great a writer. I write exactly how I would explain it if I was talking to someone. I did not want to get too ‘sciency’ and be boring, so I obviously made some leaps that require suspension of disbelief, as I wanted the book to be a quick and fun read.
IM: Are your characters based on your friends or any other people you’ve met in your professional or personal lives? NAC: Of course, everyone in there is a mishmash of people I have met or have known for years. My friends all ask me why “their” character did this or said that. I try to explain that, while they may feel that the character is “them,” it is not, and is a mixture of a lot of people.
IM: Your book is published by Permuted Press. How did you solicit the book to them? What made you look to them, as opposed to other publishers? NAC: I have been reading their books for years, as it was impossible to find ZA literature years ago; it was not popular and they were one of only a few that produced it. I contacted one of their existing authors, James Crawford—who lived in VA. We met, and he made the introduction. They blew me off at first, but I won them over eventually.
IM: What advantages does Permuted Press offer to new writers? NAC: They take risks. My concept was bizarre, to say the least, as is not a traditional zombie book. I had zero background in this area and no prior published works. But they took a chance.
IM: Did you consider going through Kindle Direct or other self-publishing sites? NAC: I strongly support it for beginning authors. I self-published first, then was picked up. But you have to be a strong, vocal, aggressive, and persistent person to get the message out about your work, whether you are published or self-published.
IM: We met at a comic-con a few months ago. What other venues have you tried (e.g. book shows, small publisher cons, etc.? NAC: All of the above. I have done book fairs, comic and horror cons, sci-fi cons (did not do well there) and zombie cons. Have had a great time at all, but you have to be a people person and want to talk shop.
IM: Since you’ve done the comic-con scene have you thought of, or ever been approached about, creating a comic book or graphic novel based on Exit Zero? NAC: That would be a dream come true!
IM: How did you get your book reviewed by different websites? Did you submit to them or did they find you some other way? NAC: As I said above, persistence and aggressive outreach!
IM: Where do you see this book going? Have you considered doing a sequel? NAC: Working on the sequel right now actually, thank you for asking.
IM: Besides zombies, what other stories would you like to tell and are there other books in the works? NAC: I have been working on this idea for a book that would show the flip side of Wolf of Wall Street, about a bunch of young Wall Street types who are not as successful, and don’t have the money, but are still degenerates and fools.
IM: Are there any established characters in film, comics, TV, or otherwise, you’d like to take a crack at writing? NAC: I was actually a stand-up comic for about eight years, working mostly up and down the East Coast. Several of the comics I worked with are now starting to make it big. My dream would be writing for Fear the Walking Dead, as I think I could add some unusual characters to that storyline. I would like to re-launch some of the classic 1970s movies that were a mixture of horror, sci-fi, and political conspiracy. Soylent Green, Rollerball, and Boys from Brazil are all touched on in Exit Zero. I would like to reboot those types of movies.
IM: What’s the best piece of advice you, Neil A. Cohen today, would give to the Neil A. Cohen that just graduated high school? NAC: Invest in Apple, go to a better college, don’t sweat the hundreds of girls that are going to reject you over the next couple years, and relax.