Anyone who enjoys zombie movies and fiction with more than a passing interest should recognize John Russo's name and won't be disappointed to read "Undead" (Kensington Publishing, 2010, $14.95). He is the co-creator of the classic horror film that gave birth to the specific genre of zombie horror: "Night of the Living Dead." George Romero may be the name everyone associates with the living dead, but without Russo, it's plausible to suggest there would be no shambling corpses stumbling around pop culture.
One of Russo and Romero's original intents was to root their story in reality: not so much with the undead, but in the people realistically reacting to the situation. The very idea of the film-ready hero dissolves in this universe, and virtue and honor guarantee nothing. Another aspect of this realism is the societal erosion that occurs during a crisis of this magnitude and the additional problems it brings with it.
In zombie land, you can't be sure of anyone. Looters, rapists, criminals and even average people seem to take the whole scenario as an invitation to anarchy. Reading this book, you'll wonder where the real threat is coming from at times—the dead or the living.
The first half of this book is a novelization of Russo and Romero's screenplay for "Night of the Living Dead," written six years after the movie's release. It offers little more than an exact retelling of the film with some minor dialogue differences and descriptive additions that are necessary to set a scene or tone.
If you've never seen the movie, it might make for exciting reading, but my brain couldn't help refer back to specific moments depicted on the screen. As adaptations of popular films go, it is serviceable. Still, it feels like a missed opportunity.
Russo could have used this book to expand on the characters and the living dead. Alternately, it would have been a treat to see the original screenplay and the various incarnations it went through. At least it would have been more interesting.
"Return of the Living Dead," the second half of the book, bears little resemblance to the film it eventually spawned. Russo intended this to be the follow up to "Night of the Living Dead" before he and Romero had a falling out. The movie adaptation was a stroke of horror-comedy genius, a splatsick classic. But the movie scarcely uses the original novel as source material. Russo's version plays it straight.
The story is set 10 years after the original zombie outbreak and sticks to a rural Pittsburgh, Pa., setting, much as its predecessor did. But the simple farmhouse that offered security in "Night of the Living Dead" becomes a trap a decade later. Characters are continually forced out into the open, and those that stay indoors tend to end up the worse for it.
Russo follows the formula set out in "Night of the Living Dead," using the horror to throw together unlikely people from various walks of life. "It's that plague comin' back, and we've all got to be ready for it. It's the Devil's work, and maybe we all deserve it!" exclaims the simple farmer, Bert. His daughters, scheming criminals, tell him: "You don't have to be afraid of us. We rescued you, for Chris-sake."
The farmer, his daughters, law enforcement and others get tossed into a nightmare situation that shows no sign of abating quickly.
Parallel to the main story are the efforts of Sheriff Conan McClellan, featured at the end of "Night of the Living Dead" with the infamous line, "Yeah, they're dead, they're all messed up."
As McClellan deals with a plague of corpses one more time, the story line jumps back and forth between the sheriff and the main characters. The device serves to underscore how the unprepared are thrust into clawing for survival, while the authorities treat disaster as just another rough day at the office.
In the end, no character is safe, despite pure motivation or heroic action. People die unexpectedly; people you slowly find yourself rooting for do not get a free pass in this world. In fact, the only refuge you will find in this story are the Civil Defense radio broadcasts peppered throughout the chapters: "Rescue, for those in the isolated areas, is extremely difficult. If evacuation is impossible, however, stay in your home and wait for a rescue team."
It might just be the wrong advice this time around.
Grab your weapons, board up those windows and watch out for strangers. You never know just who might "return" around and bite you.