Not your average zombie story

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In 2017, the man known as the father of the zombie film George A. Romero passed away from lung cancer, leaving his novel unfinished. But thanks to the efforts of his estate and co-author Daniel Kraus, this final project, the 700-page opus that is The Living Dead was able to find its way into readers’ hands.

Like so many big things, this book’s story started out small: with a single death. On the night of October 23, like any other night, medical examiner Dr. Luis Accocola and his assistant Charlene “Charlie” Rutkowski headed in to work at the morgue to see to a John Doe who was brought in earlier in the evening. But as it turns out, there is something wrong with this particular body—namely, the fact that it isn’t exactly…well, dead.

Soon, this crisis of the dead coming back to life begins spreading across the globe, with the reanimated corpses relentlessly targeted the living, adding to their numbers. In Washington DC, a statistician and researcher named Etta Hoffman receives news of patient zero and, recognizing it as the spark that creates a wildfire, begins to put together a detailed timeline documenting what is the beginning of the end of the world. Meanwhile, in a trailer park in Missouri, teenager Greer Morgan steps out her door on the way to school, only to find a scene of nightmare unfolding on her front steps. As her neighbors tear each other apart, she barely manages to escape. Elsewhere, in a newsroom in Atlanta, anchorman Chuck Corso is barely holding it together as he watches the complete destruction of the country happening right in front his eyes, but undead hordes be damned, he resolves to continue broadcasting the news as it comes in, even if doesn’t know whether his reports will reach anyone. And finally, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, US Navy officer Karl Nishimura also watches in horror as he and his crew aboard the aircraft carrier Olympia become overrun by zombies, leading to a complete breakdown of the chain of command.

Although there are many more viewpoints scattered here and there to flesh out the narrative, most of the novel’s sprawling scope is provided by this handful of main characters. From the way you are made to care about them, to the way we’re allowed to witness the undead apocalypse from its beginning to its aftermath, I was somewhat reminded of Stephen King’s The Stand in terms of the story’s sheer scale and complexity. And the more I thought about it, the fact that this book was written by two authors, with Kraus completing what Romero started, became more and more impressive. For the most part, things flowed well with far fewer hiccups than you would expect from a project published posthumously after the main creator’s death. While Kraus is no stranger to collaborations, this one must have presented unique challenges, the least of them being to decide what Romero might have intended for the direction of his novel. Because of this, the author’s note at the end was a fascinating read into the process.

As for my thoughts on The Living Dead, I am one of course to enjoy a good zombie story every now and then, but what I loved most about this one was the way it felt so personal. Sure, with regards to the amount of blood and gore we have our share of both and more, but what I also delighted in was the intimate treatment of the individual characters and moments spent with them in their quieter, more introspective moments. This is a story about how our society might react to a horrible crisis, but it also explores actions and motivations of the individual. The result is a fuller experience with a book that’s as much about people as it is the zombie apocalypse, and if you’ve ever watched a zombie film wishing there had been more of that balance, then this is most certainly for you.

In terms of criticisms, well, there’s no getting around the fact that this is a long book, and as with most veritable tomes following an ensemble cast, you inevitably run into issues with pacing and maybe a few time jumps that don’t go so swimmingly. To be fair, many of these issues also stem from the novel’s structure, which is both a strength and a weakness. Comprised of multiple parts, it reads like a retrospective chronicling of events long past, allowing for the level of attention to detail I enjoyed, though it also robs the storytelling of a sense of urgency. While some of these problems can’t be helped, a few sections didn’t even feel like they had much of a plot, floating around like lost little islands in a great narrative sea (though I did wonder if this might just be an unavoidable side effect trying to put together a whole from unfinished pieces) and when you follow so many characters, some of them will also start to feel more interesting than others.

Still, I always try to evaluate a book as a whole, and I think there’s a beauty to the way all these disparate threads ultimately came together for the climax. The ending is raw, bitter, harsh…and in my opinion, completely apt. Plus, it’s not difficult to overlook a few faults when the overall the novel is so diligently put together and epic.

All in all, even in the face of its hefty length, The Living Dead was a worthwhile read and a must-have for every zombie enthusiast and George A. Romero fan, which probably doesn’t need to be said. Offering a deeper, more expansive and intricate story than anything you could show on a movie screen, this novel represents an incredible effort by Daniel Kraus to interpret and consolidate Romero’s ideas, which culminated in a final product that lives up to the legendary filmmaker’s vision.