The Living Dead: Zombies Done Right
How do you solve the zombie problem?
I’m not talking about how to kill a zombie – you remove the head or destroy the brain. Duh. How do you tell a new and original zombie story in a world where there are so, so, so, so, so many zombie stories that have already been told?
The last few decades have seen approximately one trillion zombie movies, television shows, comic books, novels, video games, podcasts, and cave drawings released for a populace hungry for brain-munching entertainment. There are Disney Channel musicals about zombies, apps in which plants fight zombies, three zombie television shows on the network formally known as American Movies Classic, and you could, pre-COVID, even live a zombie story by partaking in a zombie-themed obstacle course or escape room.
After a while, it all starts to blur into one another. I can count the truly original zombie stories that have been told in the last ten years on two hands, even if those hands had a few fingers bitten off by the undead. The common link between the successful zombie stories that really capture an audience’s imagination? They understand the focus should not be on the dead, but on the living.
George A. Romero is widely considered the inventor of the modern zombie myth. While he never used the word “zombie” in his landmark NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, Romero took inspiration from horror comics of the '50s to tell the frightening story of the dead coming back to life, hungry for the living’s flesh. Pop culture took it from there, blurring Romero’s work with tales of the Haitian voodoo zombie. Presto-chango: the modern zombie was born. Romero would continue throughout his career to tell many more stories featuring zombies – in films, comic books, and other related paraphernalia. Now, three years after his death, George A. Romero has, with the help of author Daniel Kraus, released his definitive word on zombies: THE LIVING DEAD.
THE LIVING DEAD is a massive (656 pages!) look at the days, weeks, months, and decades following the zombie apocalypse as detailed in the six films that make up Romero’s loosely related LIVING DEAD series. Romero was never particularly concerned about continuity between his films, but they all seemed to fit within the same world. Now, with this new novel. Romero and Kraus have filled in the gaps – creating a sprawling epic featuring dozens of characters spread out across the country as they deal with the emergence of zombies. There are even references to characters from Romero's films! To steal a page from the MCU's marketing: It's all connected.
Of course, of course, Romero knew the key to making a great zombie book. Of course. This is the man who invented the genre – he knew that the carnage and viscera surrounding actual gut-munching is fine flavor for a zombie story, but the real meat on the bone has to come from engaging characters that audiences care about. Being able to understand and empathize with somebody stuck in a zombie apocalypse is what separates the experience between fear and comedy. People laugh at bad zombie movies because they focus purely on the goofy, over-the-top violence. The real winners - even the funny ones like SHAUN OF THE DEAD - succeed because they take real, developed characters that audiences would enjoy watching or reading about in any genre and throw them into a world where the dead walk.
Using outlines, notes, and completed sections from Romero, Kraus, an excellent writer in his own right, took Romero's initial work across the finish line. The final product is a novel that understands the most interesting thing about a zombie apocalypse is understanding the characters that find themselves experiencing it.
Stephen King, arguably the greatest living horror writer working today, does this thing in his novels that I absolutely adore where he spends pages upon pages providing backstory and motivation for a character. Is it necessary to the plot? No. But does it make it all the more effective when readers, fully understanding the character and connecting with them in a meaningful way, experience the character's horrific fate? You betcha!
THE LIVING DEAD is 600 pages of that. In chapter after chapter, Romero and Kraus introduce a collection of incredible, diverse characters each with their own agency and background – and then they dispatch them into a world where safety is anything but guaranteed. Reading THE LIVING DEAD and meeting all the various people who Romero and Kraus breathe life into is like having fifteen seasons of SURVIVOR downloaded into your brain MATRIX style. You really get to know these characters and understand them in a significant way. There are some that you root for, some that you despise. There are some characters that catch readers by surprise with how long they last into the story while other characters' end comes a lot sooner than expected. All the while, Romero and Krause continue to turn the screws. And there is certainly a lot of screw turning in a zombie apocalypse, right?
THE LIVING DEAD is a fantastic read and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s that weighty, “you can kill a mouse with a physical copy of the book” type of reading that allows for genuine emotional investment in the characters and story. It’s a book that understands the importance of horror told through the prism of humanity. It’s a novel that isn’t afraid to get incredibly goofy, incredibly smart, incredibly poignant, and incredibly funny from moment to moment.
THE LIVING DEAD understands that George Romero fans want to see MARTIN, KNIGHTRIDERS, and MONKEY SHINES Easter eggs in their George Romero zombie story.
BONUS BOOK PLUGS!
In case you are new to the work of Daniel Kraus, here are two other great novels by the author who helped finish Romero's book:
Nightmares are effective when they start familiar before going off the rails. I don't know enough about the YA genre to know whether or not Daniel Kraus' BENT HEAVENS is considered YA but the teenage protagonists and sci-fi trappings reminded me of a William Sleater novel. Until it didn't. BENT HEAVENS, about two teenagers who find an alien similar to the one that abducted one of their fathers three years ago, plays out like an intense combination of FIRE IN THE SKY and PRISONERS. Until it doesn't. The book is dark, guys. So, so, so dark - and I loved every minute of it.
The novel is written from the perspective of a morally conflicted delinquent youth who has agreed to help a mentally unstable man kill neighborhood children on Halloween night via candy laced with drugs, poison, and razor blades. BLOOD SUGAR is absolutely hysterical, tragic, and oftentimes both at the same time. God, this book is good.