There’s a lot to say about The Living Dead. So much to say, in fact, that I’m not entirely sure where to begin.
As many of you may already know, this novel was started by George A. Romero. The godfather of modern zombie cinema with a healthy dose of social commentary decided to write a story that might actually be too big for one movie beginning at square one: the dead no longer stay dead.
Sadly, Romero died before he was able to complete the novel and sometime after his death, his widow reached out to Daniel Kraus and asked if he would consider finishing the work. Kraus had established himself not only as an author, but also as something of an expert on Romero’s career, and of course, he said yes.
The result is an epic, character driven 630-plus page novel that is as moving as it is terrifying.
A bit of clarification before we really get started, this is not a novelization of the Romero’s movies. There seems to have been some misunderstanding about that online so I want to be clear on that. This review also contains what some might deem very light spoilers.
What Romero and Kraus give us is a modern story set in a world of cell phones, social media, and 24 hour news. Unlike any of Romero’s previous work in film, we actually get to see the first reported case of the dead rising as medical examiner Luis Acocella and his diener Charlie Rutkowski meticulously perform an autopsy on a homeless man who was killed in crossfire on a city street.
The prose here is poetic and gory. The details are laid out in front of us in minute detail. The man’s organs have been removed and Charlie is actually holding the man’s heart when his eyes suddenly open. The doctor and the diener watch as the dead man manages to slip from the table and attempts to attack them. Though they manage to re-kill him, they suddenly realize that they are standing in a room connected to cold storage where a hundred more bodies are stored and they begin to hear noises from inside that room. Noises that echo those they just heard from the dead man in front of them.
This is the beginning. From the morgue, we jump to a rural trailer park, then to a cable news network station, and finally to a naval aircraft carrier. Each location comes with its own fascinating cast of characters.
Honestly, there were times when my mind would slip to Stephen King’s epic The Stand. That’s the scale of storytelling that The Living Dead reaches for and ultimately attains.
What I found most fascinating, however, through all of the character interactions and beautifully plotted chapters is the moment when the authors decided to take us inside the mind of the zombies when they began to turn. We’re shown time and time again how people, some of whom we have come to know, change.
Their higher thinking gives way to instinct. They are controlled by the hunger, but they also recognize each other, learn from each other, become more adept at cornering and killing the “fast-moving ones” as a group. There is still the tiniest part of them that recognizes places and things, but they view them through the lens of that all-encompassing hunger and the desire to spread the collective.
It’s a clever device, but it also serves a purpose.
As the plague spreads and more of the dead rise, humanity is quickly broken down into “Us” versus “Them.” In giving us the zombie POV, we see both sides of that divide. Two camps of “Us” versus two camps of “Them.”
Now of course, this novel was begun by Romero, so there is plenty of his special brand of social commentary on a variety of issues. Perhaps more naturally than we would sometimes like to admit, the human camp of “Us” breaks down into smaller groups. Racism, dangerous religious fundamentalism, and a whole host of other societal ills rear their heads as the people look for reason and on a much more primal level, someone to blame for what has happened.
This will no doubt turn off some horror fans, mostly those who argue that horror isn’t about social issues and have never recognized how heavily they play into films like Night of the Living Dead.
While The Living Dead is undeniably a well-written character study, there is also plenty of gore to go around for those who like a healthy dose of brains and blood on the wall. Some scenes in this book are stomach churning, especially in those moments when the story begins. The level of detail is quite frankly unnerving, and the authors space those scenes out through the course of the novel in such a way that they never quite lose their edge.
As far as the writing goes, I could not tell where one author’s writing stopped and another’s began which proves Kraus’s talent as an author. It is a daunting task to co-author a long narrative when both parties are living. I can only imagine what it was like to not be able to call up George and ask, “So where were you going with this particular plot point?”
Will everyone who loves George Romero’s movies love this book? That’s hard to say. For me, it was captivating and I loved the storytelling and the sort of deep-dive that can only happen in novel form, but I could see where some might be thrown off by the novel’s length and attention to detail.
I will say this, The Living Dead is a visceral and cerebral experience that will draw the dedicated reader into its arms just close enough to take a bite.
The Living Dead is out today, August 4, 2020. You can order your copy by CLICKING HERE!