George Romero is to Zombies as Joss Whedon is now to super heroes. It only makes sense that he should break into comics! That’s right, the godfather of zombie films is continuing his work in 2D form, and like previous Living Dead films, it’s in a shared universe of his previous works. Appropriately enough for comic books.
Empire Of The Dead takes place in Manhattan of The Empire State, where the dead grossly outnumber the living. Humans live in a great class divide between the blood sport loving wealthy elite, and those who have to resort to rat-catching to survive. The story mainly follows Dr. Penny Jones, a doctor observing ‘stinker’ behavior and believing that the undead can recall their memories. Her foil being Paul Barnum, a pessimistic zombie trapper working for the ghoul-on-ghoul fighting bread and circuses run by arrogant Mayor Chandrake, and his loathsome nephew Bill. Little do they know that a different, and potentially more dangerous kind of living dead walks among them…
The story definitely shares similarities to some of Romero’s other works, Penny even being related to an important figure in the mythos. As well, a running sub-plot shows us the perspective of an intelligent zombie named Xavier, filling the role of those before her, such as fan favorite, Bub. She’s a fallen S.W.A.T. officer navigating the nebulous New York City underground trying to recall herself. Seeing the narrative from a ghoul’s point of view proves interesting, her thought boxes a struggling jumble of words upon words. Based on a zombie epic of a screenplay Romero wrote, it could only become possible through a 2-D format. With pen and ink, Romero’s fully able to realize his vision to the maximum extent. Millions of living dead against the outside walls. Stadiums packed to watch the undead fight over scrapped meat. The art by Alex Maleeve has a very befitting style, making me recall some E.C. horror comics mixed with the grit and dirtiness of a post-apocalyptic wasteland they’re trying to show. Being a work of Romero, it’s easy to see where he makes real world parallels. The distant Mayor Chandrake and his cronies live a life of luxury on top of a foundation of undead bodies, with the impoverished stuck in between. While some may see this sort of thing as heavy-handed, I feel that it didn’t take away much from the story. It only make sense considering that just about each and every work of his has had a message, from commercialism in Dawn Of The Dead and the fascist military overtones of Day Of The Dead.
Certainly not action heavy in the first issue, the dialogue between the characters was well written and showed the similarities and differences between Manhattan’s civilization and other encampments of human survival. For those wanting gore, definitely off to a good start with some brutally detailed ghouls and the zombie on zombie gladiatorial games. While fans have had their gripes with some of his recent work, I feel that this is a story they should at least give a chance. The series so far harkening to the original trilogy, and perhaps a number of ideas and characters that had to be scrapped from Land Of the Dead. The twist at the end of the first issue also making a connection to another certain Romero film that I cannot say due to spoilers, but makes this a hallmark in the franchise. Overall, I recommend this to everyone from the casual to die-hard zombie fans. With the limitless potential of the comic format, it’ll be interesting to see where Romero takes us. Empire Of The Dead Issue #1 is out now through Marvel Comics, with #2 due February 5th.