(2020) George A. Romero & Daniel Kraus, Bantam Press, £20, hrdbk, 655pp, ISBN 978-1-787-63391-9
It begins with one body. A pair of medical examiners find themselves facing a dead man who won't stay dead. It spreads quickly. In a Midwestern trailer park, an African American teenage girl and a Muslim immigrant battle newly-risen friends and family. On a US aircraft carrier, living sailors hide from dead ones while a fanatic preaches the gospel of a new religion of death. At a cable news station, a surviving anchor keeps broadcasting, not knowing if anyone is watching, while his undead colleagues try to devour him. In DC, an autistic federal employee charts the outbreak, preserving data for a future that may never come. Everywhere, people are targeted by both the living and the dead. We think we know how this story ends. We. Are. Wrong. It probably isn’t surprising that The Living Dead comes with quotes of praise from heavy horror hitters like Joe Hill, Adam Nevill, Clive Barker and Paul Tremblay, given the impact that Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead had on the horror industry, giving the zombie a much-needed shot of something in the arm, and turning it from a creature brought back from the dead, or kept in a trance-like state to wander around gloomy black and white movies or toil in fields or factories as slave labour, into a creature which preys on the flesh of the living. That change from shambling wraith to ravenous corpse has had a mammoth effect on popular culture in movies, TV shows, comics and novels, although to a lesser extent – I can’t really think of a landmark zombie book the same way there have been those about the vampire or the haunted house or the apocalyptic plague, but there are some great series out there and to be honest they are better than this. Romero directed six zombie movies starting with the seminal Night of the Living Dead in 1968 and 41 years later directed Survival of the Dead and also wrote the screenplay and executive produced the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, and let’s not forget other great genre films he directed like Martin and The Crazies. I have to confess that I jumped ship after the third zombie movie – Day of the Dead, although it was interesting to see that Romero, as innovative as ever, used the 'found footage' idea for his fifth entry into the series Diary of the Dead.
Survival of the Dead was the last film he directed in 2009, and apart from his involvement in the remake of The Crazies, Romero had been busy writing for ten years his epic, zombie-novel-to-end-all-zombie-novels, or basically putting down in book-form huge, epic zombie scenes that no studio would have financed him to shoot, although to be fair perhaps the film World War Z came close. But then he died, with the book unfinished. Enter Daniel Kraus who was approached by Romero’s agent and his wife to complete the novel. Kraus is probably better known as working with Guillermo del Toro and writing adaptations of The Shape of Water and Trollhunters. Kraus used what Romero had already written, as well as notes and files he found elsewhere to complete the book, perhaps, crucially what was missing was Romero’s start of the novel. Diagnosed with lung cancer he hoped to use what time he had to get stuck into the book and pass it on, but in reality he died three months later and spent those last months with his family, with other things, not surprisingly, occupying his attention.
Having two writers might be a problem, one of them being dead definitely is. Had Romero lived and finished the book, a good editor might have knocked it into shape – it is over 650 pages long. In places it works well, particularly the beginning, where the beginning of the end is starting to happen. Those have always been my favourite parts of any zombie film. Romero nailed it in the early scenes of his second zombie movie Dawn of the Dead. Here, we have a varied cast of characters trying to survive in this bad new world, and while diverse, they aren’t particularly interesting. There are some great action scenes in a trailer park and on an aircraft carrier which are gory and tense, unfortunately the narrative jumps ahead in time, first by ten years and then by five which just breaks up the narrative flow, and the subtle jabs about society that Romero hit the viewer with in the early films are replaced by great lumbering, roundhouse swings. Subtlety is in short supply here, and at times the narrative is overly descriptive about location and events which really turns the tension down.
Whether or not The Living Dead is a mighty tome in the world of zombie fiction is a moot point and open to debate and discussion, but on any level this is still a weighty tome, passing the 650 page mark, which includes Kraus’ acknowledgements at the end, and a 15 page “essay” entitled “Stay Scared: a co-author’s note” giving his account of his journey to complete the book. The novel itself is split into different Acts, and those Acts are split into sections, so Act One “The Birth of Death” then slips into a section called “John Doe” which is then divided into different chapters, each given a title in bold writing. There are – surprise – three Acts in all, and some of the chapters come in the form of transcripts from interviews with characters.
Romero fans will regard this as an important book in the zombie sub-genre, I’m not too sure of how important it actually is, and that by “going large” and turning the zombie into an epic event, we’ve come a long way from a brother and sister visiting their father’s grave way back in a 1968, black and white world.
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