Author: John Russo
I became an adamant fan of zombie horror in general and anything Night of the Living Dead in particular during early childhood. The old black and white movie just vibrated paranoia, a certain elemental human elegance intermixed with the baser instincts of cowardice and the need to survive. It’s a cult classic for a reason; it’s a story that covers all the bases in one night: what are we (really) and what can we become. Throw in a scary yet relatable premise, an ultimate psychological gut-punch with the dead, whom we loved, resurrected, broken, and out to get us and the ever-terrifying idea of some mystery plague that takes us (and our technology) all the way back to the primitive days of shivering in the dark, waiting for the sun. The 1990s remake capitalized even further on the nature of horror, both from outside sources and worse, from inside ourselves.
Enter my discovery of Undead, a compilation of two John Russo (one of the screen writers of the original ’68 movie) novels: the Night of the Living Dead novelization, based on the script, and the rarer, Russo writing of its sequel, Return of the Living Dead. This sequel, unlike the horror/comedy movie that bears its name, is a Russo only version that occurred after his split with Romero. This version is touted as a true sequel, all horror, focusing on the same area ten years later when another outbreak swells after a gruesome bus crash. It has nothing to do with the movie, at all.
Of course, what the back-cover tells you and what the book actually is usually differs. Here, we have a blunt yet disconnected gore-fest where the zombies take backstage and the humans, using this new break in the system to wreak some havoc, are the most dangerous villains. No more banding together. Instead, we once again have a rural farm house, a group of teenage sisters, a gang of rapist robbers, and the overarching moral that zombies are nothing compared to evil incompetents on a mission to thwart the system (and do some amazingly petty larceny) while it’s weak. Admittedly, it’s a premise that could work, could even prove more horrifying than our cannibal corpse munching stars. But it doesn’t.
Russo’s novel doesn’t really know where it wants to go. It starts by focusing on a rural church where, ten years after the event which has miraculously been forgotten, the backwoods residents still dismember the dead, just to make sure they don’t come back. This church is the first to react when a school bus of children is ripped apart in a wreck and the first to get to the bodies. But they don’t finish the job. Enter the original sheriff from the first novel/movie.
Then, drastically, once the left over bodies come back the rural church and old sheriff are forgotten, not actually integral to the plot at all despite consuming a goodly portion of set-up chapters. We then turn to a member of the church and his three girls, left at the mercy of the new cast, this group of robbers who enjoy feeding the hapless to zombies.
Just as we feel that this is a survival story, the captured girls are our focus (right), the narrative switches yet again to introduce, at the halfway mark, two State Troopers who are trying to thwart the sudden outbreak of feral bands of murderous opportunists. It’s all too confusing to figure out and while loosely connected, readers can’t point to any character or story ark as central, much less developed.
Mix the disconnected, veering plot, which likes to start and stop itself, with the uninspired writing. While Night of the Living Dead had a simple tone, the writing reminiscent of a screen-play with its stark, short summations of situations and scenes, the underlying power of the story and the characters made this approach more effective, more brutal, the narrative echoing their decaying grip on sanity by trying to focus on just the facts. Here, however, it’s just plain boring, falling into a “this happened, then this happened, then this guy got eaten, then this big truck wrecked, then some more people got eaten, then someone shot a gun, the end” lilt of unenthusiastic storytelling. We already didn’t believe the story. Now we also don’t care about it. Indeed, we wish the thing would just end already.
In the end, it all proves to be a mishmash of irrelevant and non-impactful events with unnecessary gore spattered in, as though to make up for the lack of art in telling. We’re not scared, we’re not involved, we’re not invested, and ultimately, if we feel any emotion, it’s disgust. Not recommended, even for fans of the Night of the Living Dead franchise.
– Frances Carden
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