This book remained largely unfinished when George Romero died in July 2017. Unlike his undead subjects which made him famous, Romero remained dead, but his book was given a second chance to live. Daniel Kraus, a long-time fan of Romero’s movies, was commissioned to complete the novel, and the result is a surprisingly cohesive, entertaining, yet thought provoking piece of writing. In fact, while reading The Living Dead, it’s hard to say where one writer’s work ends and the other’s begins. But there are some points where speculation is made easier by Kraus’s long co-author’s note at the end of the novel. The novel had a long genesis. Kraus explains that Romero had offered to make chapters of another book, The Death of Death, available on a website as early as 1997 for payment. When he died, that story remained undeveloped: “George had only written two chapters. But those two chapters equalled over one hundred pages”. Kraus was given permission to incorporate The Death of Death into Romero’s unfinished novel. It is now the beginning of the third act in The Living Dead. Kraus also explains that “a significant chunk of the conception of Years Six through Fifteen was up to me”. Kraus is describing the timeline of the novel, from the initial outbreak, beginning with patient zero, a John Doe in a morgue, to the aftermath of the zombie plague. That would suggest that much of the story describing the initial outbreak of ‘ghouls’ is Romero’s, while the later part of the book is Kraus’s. Nevertheless, it is evident that Kraus had to overhaul the entire story, and major elements developed in the first half of the book are entirely Kraus’s creation.
It’s not really possible to talk about this book without some reference to Romero’s work as a filmmaker. Romero defined the zombie of popular western culture in his films, beginning with Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Romero initially avoided the term ‘zombie’. It’s used for the first time in Dawn of the Dead in 1978, the sequel to Night of the Living Dead. It is avoided in the first half of this novel, too, until page 413 out of 635, when it seems that Kraus’s influence is predominant. The first use of the word is almost surprising. Until this point, the novel seems to have ignored the resurgent popularity of zombies in pop culture, as if the tale Romero tells us is something new; something that attempts to define the zombie genre from the start, to make us see it afresh, just as it is new for his characters who grope blindly in their new world, trying to understand their experience. Part of the reason for Romero’s avoidance of the word ‘zombie’ in his first film was that he saw his undead as distinctly different from zombies of tradition, like Haitian zombies. Romero’s first film drew inspiration from Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, instead, which described zombie-like vampires. When Romero’s ‘ghouls’ arise in Night of the Living Dead, their unnatural reanimation is attributed to a probe returning from Venus which has exploded in Earth’s atmosphere. In the 1990 remake, Romero avoids any definitive explanation. Instead, as would seem realistic, there is a multitude of explanations offered by news organisations that have no real idea what is happening. Ben, who leads the defence of a farmhouse against the dead, is naturally sceptical. Romero had come to understand the limitations of explaining the undead phenomenon. Left as a mystery in the novel, the rising of the dead becomes an imagined existential crisis: a metaphor for modern consumerism, of the alienation of technology, of the bleak outlook for humanity’s future and the barbarism of modern society. That Romero understood the rise of the dead might capture something of the social zeitgeist, is evident in his first film and is made more explicit in the 1990 remake which he rewrote from the original screenplay. In the original, Ben, the black man who defends the farm house, is mistakenly shot the next morning by southern white men, who mistake him as a ghoul. The final sequence of the film is a litany of images that suggest former southern lynchings still characterise race relations in the South. The remake extends the film’s final moments, and widens the scope of its social appraisal. Barbara, who survives in the remake, remarks, “They’re us,” as she watches zombies hanged from a tree, being stoned and shot at. “We’re them, they’re us”. And to make her coda more explicit, Ben is not shot by gun totting southerners who have come to clean out the zombie horde. Instead, he is shown to have been transformed in the final moments of the film. Meanwhile, Barbara treats Harry, the very-much-alive belligerent father who has undermined their defence of the house, as she would any threatening zombie: she shoots him.
Night of the Living Dead was the first of six zombie movies Romero made, ending with Day of the Dead, which extends the story of the original uprising into a fifth year. But the novel is larger, both in its timescale and scope, than the films. For those familiar with Max Brook’s World War Z, there will be familiarities. The Living Dead begins with patient zero, John Doe, reanimating in a morgue, and introduces several stories – Luis Acocella and Charlene (Charlie) Rutkowski, the morgue clinicians, and Etta Hoffmann, a statistician running the American Model of Lineage and Dimensions (AMLD) database that records deaths – and the character pool expands as the story progresses: Greer Morgan, a black teenager from a trailer park; Chuck Corso (‘the Face’), a lightweight television presenter about to adopt a significant role in the first days of the outbreak; and Karl Nishimura, a Japanese-American and Master Chief Boatswain on the air craft carrier, USS Olympia, along with a female fighter pilot, Jenny Pagán who is being sexually stalked by the ship’s chaplain, Lieutenant Commander William Koppenborg, otherwise known as Father Bill. The opening of the story, while a traditional narrative, has the feel of reportage, which initially suggests the novel may be similar to Brooks’s. But its style is different, even if the sense of an historical event is achieve later in the novel with Etta Hoffmann’s project to record the experiences of the survivors of the outbreak, as a historical record for the library at Fort York in Canada. But The Living Dead is largely a traditional narrative, and once the disparate characters are introduced and the trajectory of the story is revealed, it feels even more so. Romero/Kraus have written a drama, while Brooks dramatized the zombie war through interviews and records that feel like real found records of the event. Brooks’s documentary approach leaves us to speculate upon our real world preparedness for any outbreak (the last two years under Covid comes to mind). The horror, there, lies with a heightened awareness of our vulnerabilities and susceptibility.
The Living Dead approaches our fears from a different angle. Because it does not attempt to explain the phenomenon, its horror lies in the philosophical underpinning expressed by Barbara in Night of the Living Dead: that humans are the plague – “The zombies aren’t the virus. We are.” In The Living Dead, there is something fundamentally wrong with human nature and our society. Tammy Shellenarger, the White House Press Secretary reacting to the crisis, tries to assure her audience, “I know there are a lot of bad people out there. You think I don’t know that? But they don’t … bite each other. They don’t eat each other. It’s against nature. We’re the same.” But it is only four pages later that the aptly-named Nathan Baseman, an executive producer for WWN news, strikes his news presenter, Rochelle Glass, over a disagreement about the airing of the crisis, and three pages after that, that she strikes back, putting a hole in his cheek with the heel of her shoe. The fact that he kills her by tearing out her throat with his teeth is significant. After all, he is not a ghoul.
And then there is Father Bill on the USS Olympia, whose sexual repression is warped when he sees a porn magazine he has confiscated, and he allows his desires for Jenny Pagán to overwhelm him. His sexual predation is undertaken with zombie-like intent, first pursuing Jenny with his erection strapped painfully to his leg, and then, when the dead begin to rise on the ship, he channels his frustrations by assuming the mantle of a post-apocalyptic leader, based on a messianic belief in his own invulnerability. He protects the ghouls rather than the living.
But of the numerous humans who fail in their humanity throughout the story, it is Richard Lindof who mostly concerns us. Born disfigured – much like Richard III of Shakespeare’s play – he is a man with money and family connections who has failed. His recourse, before the dead rise, is to kill himself as a public spectacle at an event he arranges in the top of Trump Tower, in front of as many near-celebrities as he is able to persuade to attend. For a failed movie producer like Lindof (his list of titles is disturbingly funny just as is his familiar relationship to Romero’s own difficulties producing movies) the rising of the dead and the overturning of social norms is a renewed opportunity or him. He tells Luis Acocello in a phone conversation from Trump Tower, “I think your world is about to fall into the ocean, Acocella, and my world is about to rise up like a fucking mountain.” If the novel has expressed a position about the worst in human nature – be it racism or sexism, for example – Lindof represents the political reality of America in the Trump era. While Romera/Kraus’s scope is worldwide, this story is told from the perspective of Americans, and sense is made of the crisis through the prism of American understanding. When society falls apart and the dead take over, it is Canada that becomes the hope for survivors. But the hope Canada promises is not just its colder climate which does not suit the zombies: it lies in the opportunity for utopian renewal; a place in which guns are eschewed, where a collective rather than capitalism is the basis of work, and the counterintuitive humanity shown to zombies – to leave them alone – bears fruit. Lindof’s agitation against these ideals is pure Trump: the Council must be gotten rid of, a wall must be built, and guns must be restored to the people. Zombies are expressed as an ‘other’ in the same kind of racial epithets we might expect from current debates on the far right: “They’re an invasive species, that’s what they are. Asian Carp. Burmese pythons.”
For this reason, the issue of terminology – what to call the undead – seems appropriate. What we call others determines our attitude towards them and how they are treated. Sometimes they are ‘ghouls’, later they are zombies. Sometimes they are imagined by characters as the realisation of their own cultural avatars, like the legend of the Millennialist from Japan. But that is only to say, the zombies are a reflection of our own selves and cultural trauma. It is telling that Luis Acocella calls them ‘miscarriages’, haunted as he is by his wife’s own miscarriage. Father Bill tells Jenny that the ghouls are like golems from Jewish legend, created as protectors, that would one day “use Their overwhelming numbers to cleanse the Earth of evil”, which is an underlying theme of the novel. As an exploration of human nature, or as a political metaphor, the story rises above its schlock and gore, and actually connects. It’s an entertaining and engrossing story and surprisingly cohesive in its execution. It’s certainly worth a read.
One day, golems would turn on Their creators, learn how to build more of Their own kind, and use Their overwhelming numbers to cleanse the Earth of evil.
Legend had it that the Millennialist staggered from the mushroom cloud of Hiroshima, once a man but now a charred-black monster, eyeless, fingerless, jawless, and encrusted with broken glass, a phantom that stalked Japan at night. From it punctured chest came birdlike, wheezing laughter. It kept walking, brandishing its ruined body as a parade might brandish a standard, so that no one could forget how it died – how all might die. Leaps of so-called progress. Dehumanizing tech.
When Charlie hesitated, twenty feet from the crush, Luis saw no fewer than three people fall to sarcophages. He was not able to tell if they were neighbors he knew, because gadgets masked so many of them. It felt like irony that it was the dead who had faces, while the living were known only by their designer cases.
We created technology we couldn’t live without. How dumb was that? We made ourselves into brain-dead zombies.
The ghouls, They’ve taken it all. The museums, the factories, the power plants, the lakes and rivers, the highways, the homes. But don’t give up hope. Please don’t give up hope. Maybe those things needed to be taken. The government, the military, the media too – all of it was already rotted. And if it was rotted, doesn’t that mean that all of it already belonged to Them, the rotting?
America: everyone out there would wield their own tiny piece of it, each glass dagger reflecting the image of the wielder – a million truths, but no truth.