Armed with nothing but my love for his films, a one-time read of his own novelization of Dawn of the Dead (co-written with Susanna Sparrow) and my ceaseless idolatry, avid fandom and awful grief over his death three years ago, I tackled what is George A. Romero’s latest (and final) creative endeavor. And while I know and love his screenwriting, this is only the second time I’ve ever read his prose, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Co-written (and finished) by Daniel Kraus (the novelization of the Oscar-winning The Shape of Water), the hardcover of The Living Dead is scheduled for release on August 4, 2020. For fans of horror, fans of zombie-lore, but most specifically for fans of Romero’s beloved zombie legacy, The Living Dead is a must-read and a must-own.
The book covers 15 years of a new history in the world, focusing solely on a group of seemingly unrelated US-based characters. We see their personal tales on the bloody day of the initial zombie outbreak, then follow them as they attempt to not only survive, but try to understand what is happening around them, when the dead return to life, intent to feed on living flesh.
The structure of the book is something you’ll find yourself having to adapt to. It took a bit of time to allow my brain to properly shift, as each character was introduced in another part of the country. In some cases, a character you met early on, would not reappear for a good hundred pages. At first, I was uncertain if I’d ever see some of the initial characters again (statistician Etta Hoffman in Washington, D.C. and San Diego medical examiners, Luis Acocella and Charlene Rutkowski). But as the book progresses, they return and their stories move forward.
One of the great joys of this piece is watching the paths of these disparate characters begin to cross in the smallest of ways, until their stories completely and effortlessly become one. My favorite character was young Greer, an African-American teenager (a whiz with a bow and arrow) living in a dilapidated trailer home in a small Missouri town. Her initial journey is so harrowing, and her reactions to her situation so organic, it’s tough not to cling to her immediately.
But the character with the most change (mentally, physically, emotionally) is Chuck Corso, the vain and not-too-bright on-air personality from WWN-TV in Atlanta. He’s also known as “The Face”, as he’s had plenty of plastic surgery throughout the years, to stay “pretty” for his television audiences. Of all the characters introduced here, you’ll be most smitten and impressed with his remarkable and enlightened journey.
I also appreciate the fact that the voices of each of these characters, from different parts of the country and from different walks of life, managed to be specific and unique from one another. That’s not always achievable when you’ve got one voice (in this case, two) at the helm.
Something I also appreciate about a great writer is when they are able to incorporate extremely technical jargon in a way which allows the reader (in most cases, the layman) to simply breeze through with a basic understanding of necessary explanations. The perfect example here, is the many chapters aboard the aircraft carrier, Olympia. Not that I’d know if Kraus & Romero got all of the details right, but if there’s never a pause while reading through exposition of a specific location or of a specific vocation, then the writer has done well.
With a few chapters from the point of view of some of the “ghouls”, we do get some insights into how they operate. A complaint which initially struck me as quite a negative, I eventually semi-warmed to. It certainly takes a cue from the likes of “Big Daddy” and “Bub”, the heroic and somehow more human-esque zombie characters in Romero’s Land of the Dead and Day of the Dead, respectively.
While fascinating to be sure, I wasn’t sold off the bat. Even now, days after completing my read, I’m not sure how I feel about this ultimately. But I see its purpose certainly, following the trajectory of one of the main characters, and how their story ends. It was the concept of an almost Borg-like hive-mind shared by the newly risen which didn’t quite work for me.
Romero’s films never shied away from throwing out timely social issues, mixing them in with the bloody zombie gut-crunching (generally almost incidental).
The Living Dead is no exception. Night of the Living Dead showed how poor communication works in a crisis. Dawn of the Dead had its jabs at consumerism. Day of the Dead took a hard look at the military complex and Land of the Dead tackled the ages-old issue of “the rich vs. the poor”, i.e the class system.
While The Living Dead deftly whirls between all of those things mentioned above (and more), its biggest topic is who and what we are as human beings, and how it is that we use, abuse and throw away Mother Earth – and how Mother Earth will choose to finally react to said abuse. She’ll defend herself… and viciously.
Is The Living Dead a cautionary tale? You bet it is.
On another note, the timing of my read could not be more fitting and frankly, unnerving. In the middle of this COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest, there were moments while reading this story over the past weeks, where events I had been seeing on the daily news, and the images of protest and looting and an ever-spreading sickness in the book had begun to conflate in my mind. And perhaps that’s why this tale of Greer and Charlie, Etta and Karl and all of the others has such power and resonance in this very moment.
I’m always a fan of those pointed, one-line paragraphs in prose (as an example, Stephen King does them so well). And there’s one here which packs quite a wallop, bringing the point of the entire zombie outbreak and subsequent apocalypse into one succinct idea. And in that idea, in that sentence, is Romero and Kraus’ ultimate social commentary. As this is the point of the book, I’ll not share it, but when it comes up in your read, you’ll recognize it. It is interesting to note that this great big revelation, as well as another character-specific one, have been grazed by in previous Romero tales of the undead; one in Dawn of the Dead and the other in Romero’s epic original draft of Day of the Dead. In this book, we’ll see the final and complete realization of those particular concepts.
But is the book scary? Yes. There is no shortage of terror. The introduction to Greer’s story-line is incredibly upsetting. Her battle to escape her rundown trailer park is primal and bloody. I mean, like the so-called “softee” zombies described in the book, this hard-core horror fanatic (me) can’t handle the gore and grit and guts like I used to. And the horrifically detailed descriptions of the damage a zombie can do, showcased in the particular sequence? Wow. Not for the faint-of-heart or those with weak stomachs.
In a long line of stand-out zombie characters (“Bub”, “Big Daddy”, “Flyboy”), this new story offers up a delightful array of specific zombies, who shine (glistening flesh and drool) above the rest. One is “Annie Teller” (I’ll say no more, as not to say too much) and the other is “The Chief”, a mystical and spiritual character who will weirdly touch you.
As for nostalgia, the book is filled to the brim with call-outs, homages and Easter Eggs to Romero’s filmography, even beyond his Dead films. Why, there was one final revelation – not necessarily crucial to the journeys of our main characters – used as basically an example in the film’s climax, which left me in tears, literally sobbing. My favorite film from Romero (indeed, my favorite film of all time) is his 1985 release, Day of the Dead. Other than that clue, I’ll spill no more about this game-changing insight. Loving that film as I do, this brief description was wholly unexpected and frankly, devastating.
Despite the ultra-violent subject matter and the painful mirror held up to humanity’s never-ending shortcomings, the book ends on a hopeful note. And with the ending of Night of the Living Dead being so pessimistic, and the endings of Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead somewhere in the grey area between hopeful and hopeless, it’s nice to see legitimate optimism and from so many varying points of view.
On that topic, there’s a secondary character, introduced later into the story – one you wouldn’t expect would end up being important – whose journey brings the entire book to a close. It’s powerful, and once I realized that this was the inevitable ending for this particular character (via several “random” encounters), my heart was warmed. It was an unexpected bit of emotion, from an unexpected place and an unlikely character at a very particular point in their life.
And this place of purity and, dare I say, love – is at the heart of the book’s themes.
As much as I’d like to see a limited television series of this piece (because I adored it so), it’d be a shame to truncate it to something like 8 episodes. You’d need at least a half dozen more to get it all in. And there’s not enough to develop this into an ongoing annual series. Then again, it’s happened before.
On a personal note, I, like Mr. Kraus (his wonderful author’s notes offer incredible insights and anecdotes), deeply mourned Romero’s death. And being inside Romero’s head one last time, brought up all of those feelings of grief over the loss of my creative idol. I once penned an entry on my personal blog – many years ago – when The Walking Dead had just completed season two. I mentioned something along the lines of, “it feels as if this show was created just for me.”
A selfish thought to be sure, but anything Romero-related or Romero-inspired – well, because of my connection to his creative output and how it’s shaped my life and career – I’ve always claimed those things as mine. The Living Dead is a striking and exciting culmination of all things Romero-zombie. I can’t think of a better send-off for all that Romero gave film audiences over the years.
And yes, as I put The Living Dead in my rear-view, with that all-too-common and painful “post-book depression”, I can say too that it feels as though it was created just for me.
The Living Dead is available for pre-order on Amazon and will be released August 4, 2020