Undead (Living Dead Omnibus) by John Russo. Originally published in October, 2010 by Kensington Books. Approx. 156 pages (Night of the Living Dead) and 165 pages (Return of the Living Dead).
Back in 1968, a little independent movie went on to become the best horror movie of all time. I am speaking of course of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, which is required viewing for Halloween night. And, as we all know, due to the infamous leaving out of a copyright, it can be viewed any time for free in the vast openness of the Public Domain.
But what I didn't know was that there was actually a novelization of the film, penned by co-screenwriter John Russo. Russo would also write the blueprint for a sequel, very serious in tone, called Return of the Living Dead, which would be made into a classic, although not very serious in tone, movie.
Anyway, both of these books have been compiled into a handy omnibus, with a very nifty cover (just look at that ugly mug). Just a not: currently on Amazon, the omnibus is selling as a bargain book for $5.98. So how do these stories fare compared to their film counterparts? Both are quick reads, and reviews vary pretty widely . Let's take a look.
Night of the Living Dead:
This adaptation is the shorter of the two included here. If, by some chance you are unfamiliar with the story, here's a quick synopsis: some mysterious force has caused the recently dead to come back to life in a murderous state. In NotLD, we follow Ben, a resourceful father separated from his family in Western Pennsylvania, as he holes up in a farmhouse to try and weather out the zombie attack. He does his best to reinforce the home, while taking care of another survivor, a young woman named Barbara, who is in a catatonic state since being attacked along with her brother. Later on, they meet some more survivors hiding out in the basement, including a married couple with an injured daughter, and a young teen couple. Unfortunately, as the night progresses, the zombie mass swells, and the outlook within the farmhouse gets bleaker and bleaker.
Russo does a fairly serviceable retelling of the movie here. Novelizations, at best, offer an author a chance to "flesh out" characters from a film, giving fans that precious look inside of their heads which isn't visible on celluloid. Russo opts not to do that. He gives these familiar characters a little extra backstory, but that is about it. In this case, it isn't a bad thing. These characters don't need to be fleshed out even more, they've stood the test of time for effectively conveying personality types you see in a crisis: the calm-headed resourceful one, the one that shuts everything out, the cowardly, griping, malcontent, the youthful, helpful ones that don't think things all the way through. So, what Russo does is assign physical descriptions to the zombies that were not available with the budget and technology that Romero had to work with. This yields satisfying depictions of walking, rotting carcasses, more gruesome deaths, etc.
The only other additional material here is a little more focus on Sheriff McClellan's posse, giving you an idea of their progress.
Russo has a decent writing style; I really don't get the people who call this work "amateurish". There is amateurish, and there is accessible. This book falls in the latter. It is a novel that can be read with ease by a twelve year old, which might in fact be the best target audience for the book. Some words are used fairly repetitively; Russo does not really use the word "zombie", although "ghoul" is a good substitute, but when he keeps calling the "attackers" or "aggressors", it sounds kind of odd. There are some times where the descriptions are just silly; I believe he was referring to the TV when he described it as "one like those people bought in the thirties".
All in all, this is a good enough novelization, assuming you ever wanted to read the book version of Night of the Living Dead. At least with Return, there is some new material to be found. So, how did that story turn out?
Return of the Living Dead:
For his sequel to the events in Night of the Living Dead, Russo sets the timeline at ten years after the original outbreak. The location remains the same, and we are even reunited with hard-nosed Sheriff McClellan.
In this follow-up story, the events of the first outbreak are never forgotten, but rarely talked about. A reason for those events was still never isolated, and after the dead uprising was quelled, the government kept all talk of it hush-hush. However, in the areas around Willard, the local church goers have learned to be proactive: with each death, a railroad spike is driven into the corpse's skull, lest it may walk again.
Again, we never learn what triggers this outbreak. Whereas in Night, there was speculation put forward that the cause of the dead rising was linked to radiation from a Venus Probe, in Return the consensus is that it is viral.
In RotLD, we focus at the beginning on Sheriff McClellan. Once things get off and shambling, the focus shifts to the Miller family, and their dealings with a roving gang, and also on a State Trooper named Dave, as he tries to make sense of a world turned on its head.
Storyboarding itself like a low budget movie, Return has a very "localized" feel. There are good and bad aspects to this. It serves well to stress the immediacy of the danger. But there are some things that just don't add up. For example, the bulk of the book takes place over the span of 48 hours, and, even though it is mentioned that it is happening elsewhere (again), you never get the feeling that there is anything going on outside the area of action. With not too many shamblers afoot, you would think that when someone gets their hands on car, they would bolt 10-15 minutes away to where some serious backup could be acquired. The attempt is made to recreate the same feeling of isolation from help as in the previous novel, but logic quells that argument. Another part that gave me a laugh was when a farmer holed up on a hill told the trooper that they had been "surviving off of canned food since it started". Sir, it only started yesterday.
One other problem we encounter in Return is flat characters. All the primaries are painted in the broadest possible manner, in what I am guessing is a move meant to create identifiable, sympathetic, screen ready characters. So, while there is precious little development, it is fairly simple to guess each characters core function and guess how they will fare in the end.
On the other hand, the zombies are written with obvious aplomb. Russo again fleshes out some scary looking walkers, infusing them with a sort of malevolence burning behind their ravenous cravings for living flesh. He goes into gory detail when it comes to their feeding sessions. One instance in particular has him adding symbolic rape elements to a death by zombie; a moment that would have translated extremely well to the screen.
Another story angle that Russo wisely explores in this sequel is embracing one of the inevitable results of a zombie apocalypse: the fact that once people learn to contend with the undead, the real danger lies with other people. The people pushing their motives to the fore in a now lawless area. The looters, the rapists, and those with delusions of grandeur. Now, while Russo spends a good amount of time focusing on these miscreants, what he serves up are fairly one-dimensional bad guys (this is where the fact that this was written as being intended for a screen adaptation shows through). So, on both ends of the spectrum (good vs. evil), Return is filled with static characters and cardboard villains.
The final act of Return is composed in an interesting manner. As McClellan and his posse figure into the story more and more, Russo copies chapter from the first novel to the word (just updating a few facts to coincide with this scenario). Obviously this is meant to be a parallel to Night, but it just feels like deja vu all over again.
It's hard to deliver a final verdict on Return of the Living Dead. I don't want to say it's a mediocre book, because there are some very good elements here. But for everything done well, there is something phoned in. And there's no way to avoid that affecting the bottom line.
Here's what they are:
This zombie double-feature boast some well drawn zombies, but poorly realized characters. Both employ simple, easily accessible writing. Perhaps, in the end, they are entirely unnecessary novelizations, but they are still quite enjoyable in their own regards. Whereas in NotLD, the extra bells and whistles on the zombies themselves and their attacks add to the story, in Return is feels like a bit of a rehash.
Night of the Living Dead: 72/100
Return of the Living Dead: 67/100
Very nice cover showing good detail on a zombie's face. What more can you ask for with a cover for a book like this?
Cover Final Score: