"The Living Dead" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Tor Books
Written by George A. Romero & Daniel Kraus
2020, 600 pages, Fiction
Released on 6th August 2020
Like many other reviewers, for the last couple of years I have avoided zombie novels, mainly because the last decade horror has been drowning in them. However, the name of George A. Romero was more than enough to entice me back into this popular sub-genre for one final rodeo. No self-respecting horror fan could not be interested in a novel reportedly started by Romero many years ago, which has been substantially developed and completed by Daniel Kraus, who wrote the excellent YA horror thriller Rotters (2011), which I recommend very highly.
The Living Dead concludes with fascinating endnotes from Kraus, who met Romero on a single occasion a decade before his death in 2017, painting a picture of a horror-loving kid growing up worshipping the original trilogy and was delighted to have the opportunity of working with his idol. Kraus explains that even though The Living Dead starts with ‘Day 1’, Romero’s original idea was that the book should continue into the period beyond Day of the Dead (1985). Day of the Dead might have been the third film shot, but time sequence-wise it is the last. The book takes in a broad sweep of events akin to what begins with Night of the Living Dead, portraying a worldwide zombie holocaust catastrophe similar to which occurs in the subsequent films. Other than that the content of the book has nothing to do with the films. But if you’ve seen the flicks you know what you’re going to get.
This brings us to the first major problem, and it is a major one, The Living Dead tries to do too much. Over the years I have read many zombie novels and the best examples are those which do not cover a worldwide events, instead they focus on a few characters and very specific locations; Jonathan Maberry’s YA novel Rot and Ruin and Alden Bell’s Reapers are the Angels are outstanding examples. Moving away from books, The Walking Dead does the exact same thing; we never find out what is happening in Washington, London or anywhere else. This novel does the opposite by trying to be bigger than the competition, and at 600 pages it becomes a slog to finish and is too long. Perhaps Daniel Kraus was attempting to make a closing statement, some sort of literary conclusion to Romero’s career. If so, it misfires slightly. I do not believe any closing statement was required, the three original films are Romero’s legacy, masterpieces which will live long on after this novel has faded from memory.
If anything, Kraus plays too much respect to the original source material. In the 35 years since Day of the Dead was released there have been countless other zombie films and fiction, which are much better than this. It does not do anything that has not been done a million times before; the zombies are so slow you could fall asleep and a few of the standard action sequences, such as in the uninspiring opening in the morgue, are as unhurried as the dead. This might have been fresh fourteen years ago before Max Brooks unleashed World War Z on the world, and ultimately the name of George A. Romero is just not enough to carry a book which is full of very familiar material. However, if you are a Romero fan and not read much zombie fiction then you will probably enjoy it much more than I.
I openly cried at the end of Alden Bell’s Reapers are the Angels, but I cared little for what happened to the multitude of characters which come and go in these rather bloated 600-pages. Although it attempts to give the early stages of a zombie holocaust a very broad scope, in which the media are very slow to join the jots, all the different stories are disconnected, and strangely uninvolving. It moves from the morgue where the patient zero reanimates, then a trailer park, an aircraft carrier and an autistic federal employee charting the outbreak. My favourite sequence is the one set in the cable news station which has the motto ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ and follows the outbreak through the reporters and eventually a surviving anchor newsreader who in the end does not know if anybody is watching. Another plotline concerning a crazy preacher who interprets the zombie uprising as a punishment from God also has its moments. The novel should also be applauded for its diversity, featuring characters from varied cultural backgrounds.
Although Romero obviously contributed heavily to the developing story, Kraus, who has written most of The Living Dead, drops a fascinating discussion point for uber-fans in the endnotes regarding a much earlier version of the text. Around the year 2000, Romero (who was a technophobe) apparently experimented with self-publishing on the internet and sold two chapters of a book with a very similar idea directly to fans, which they would buy directly from him chapter by chapter. It is unknown whether he abandoned the project due to lack of interest or whether he got bored of it. Sadly, the chapters have not been recovered. However, Kraus does note that the anthology Nights of the Living Dead, which was edited by Jonathan Maberry and Romero, includes a rare fictional piece from Romero, which is an alternative version of the first chapter to The Living Dead.
As the book progresses past the time period featured in Day of the Dead, Daniel Kraus does throw in more new material and some fresh spin, but it remains too reverential to Romero and I could not help thinking that this is a book that we do not need. I’m sure it will have its fans and Romero purists may well purr over it, but for this reader, even though it has its moments, it still feels like a dead horse is being flogged.
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