Author: John Russo
Undead: Night of the Living Dead & Return of the Living Dead
Titan Books 2011
John Russo is the screenwriter of the seminal 1968 Night of the Living Dead – a film more usually linked with his much more famous counterpart George A Romero. Romero went on to produce six …of the Dead films, in which Russo was not involved, and the relationship ended in a legal battle over the original material. Undead contains novelised versions of Russo’s screenplays for both Night of the Living Dead and Return of the Living Dead. Russo’s introduction is by far the most interesting portion of the book. It details some of the very early discussion between himself and Romero, even down to the idea of flesh eating zombies. Although this notion may seem so entirely mundane to us now (everyone knows zombies eat people, right?) the mythology was very much established by Night, and has since been subsumed into our collective consciousness in the same way that we know werewolves can be killed with silver and vampires can’t be seen in mirrors. It is a little difficult to separate the book from the film, with the film representing the very cradle of zombie life, as it does, but this is a review of the book.
Night centres on a group of mixed individuals in a farmhouse, holed up against the oncoming flesh-eating hordes. A take-charge anti-hero, a passive, inert woman, a small injured child and her parents form the basis of the characters. Night is a dark, bleak story, flavoured with a disturbing paranoia. Russo has created an atmosphere of dangerous isolation, where each character represents danger, whether zombie or human. The besieged set-up is beautifully designed, simple and effective. When the danger finally switches, as you knew it would, coming from inside the locked, barricaded house in the form of a zombie-child, the terror climaxes nicely. There is nothing I love more than a zombie child, so perfectly creepy. The sheer bleakness of the story is almost shocking, encapsulated in the traumatic ending. Stephen King probably had this ending in mind when he wrote The Mist.
Return is a more complex story, spread over several sets of locations and characters, and is better for it. Where the strength of Night comes from the constraints of being in such a tight and panic-ridden hot box, Return boasts better, more character-driven plotting. Packed with reprehensible characters, as well as some you can root for; there is also plenty more action, kicking off with some brutal scenes at a funeral, before all hell is let loose after a bus crash. Brutal is a good word for the violence in both stories. Described in visceral detail, each axe stroke, each fleshy mouthful is almost physical in its viciousness; you can almost hear, see and smell it.
Some of the formatting of the book really needs amending. The action is interspersed with excerpts from TV and radio broadcasts, all detailing the authorities’ responses, or news show reactions. I assume to differentiate between these and the text, they are set in capitals. Anyone who has written an email can tell you that capital letters just make it look like YOU ARE SHOUTING. These are extremely annoying to read; very off-putting.
But I have one major issue with this book. While the film of Night itself was hailed as groundbreaking and controversial in its portrayal of an African-American hero, I am afraid that this book had me seething with rage within the first few chapters. Though it may be avowedly not racist, Undead reads like a tract on the uselessness of the female sex. The female characters are simpering, cowering fools, all succumbing to uncontrollable hysteria or dumb catatonia at the drop of a hat. Return, with its wider selection of female characters at various levels of ineptness, is a tad less enraging than Night, but ultimately, they are just not as good at things as men. The novel may be a commentary on the political state of the US at that time, it may be a subversive treatise on the dangers of concealed communism, but honestly, I don’t think it is anything nearly as clever as that. I think Russo is a dirty rotten sexist.