Thursday, 28 July 2011

‘Undead’ – John Russo (Titan Books)

You’ve probably all seen ‘Night of the Living Dead’ already (and if you haven’t then you really should check it out) but there may well be spoilers lurking in this review for those who haven’t. You might want to bear that in mind...

I’ve watched ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (the original 1968 version) a number of times now but it still remains a film that has me on the edge of my seat, no matter that I already know how it’s going to end. The terror and suspense is ratcheted up superbly and I always seem to find myself getting sucked into the inevitability of what is to come. I really can’t get enough of this film, just writing that last sentence has got me wondering if it’s time to put the DVD on again.
That’s the thing though, with a little one who prefers musicals (‘Calamity Jane’ in particular...) and a wife who has been known to suffer from nosebleeds during horror films there’s never a right time to sit down and watch something really scary. This is the reason why I was so pleased (really, I did the little dance and everything) when a copy of ‘Undead’ came through the door a few days ago. ‘Undead’ contains John Russo’s novelizations of ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Return of the Living Dead’ (a sequel to ‘Night’, not the film you’re probably thinking of). Not only would I be able to read these two tales (while baby watches her musicals and wife enjoys not having a nosebleed) but they were written by a man who actually worked with George Romero in getting ‘Night of the Living Dead’ up on the screen. I mean, that’s got to be a sure fire recipe for success doesn’t it?
Why was I so disappointed then...?

‘Night of the Living Dead’ tells the tale of a dysfunctional group of characters trapped in an isolated farmhouse on the day that the dead begin to rise. It really doesn’t help that this farmhouse just so happens to be very near to a cemetery... The clean-up operation is in affect but can our characters hold out until help arrives? They can’t even agree on a united course of action so the signs aren’t looking good...
‘Return of the Living Dead’ picks up the story some ten years later with a religious cult that believes all dead bodies must be ‘spiked’ in order that the dead never rise again. Cult members arrive first at the scene of a horrific crash but are unable to finish their work before the police arrive. You can guess what happens next. The dead are rising once more and slowly adding to their numbers...

‘Night of the Living Dead’ recounts the events of the film but doesn’t do a lot else; in fact, it doesn’t do anything else to flesh out the characters or plot. If you haven’t seen the film then maybe this won’t be such a big deal to you and the novelization does do a decent enough job in conveying the growing sense of fear amongst the people trapped in the farmhouse. You also get a fair idea of how events can play out in a situation such as this; everything clearly happens for a reason and you can clearly see those points where everything goes wrong.

For someone who has seen the film though (me!) I couldn’t help feeling that an opportunity had been missed here. We could have found out more about Barbara for example or had a little insight into just what made Harry so unwilling to follow Ben’s lead. We didn’t get anything like that though, just a rather dry recounting of the events in the film. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, a film novelisation should run along those lines (and the film itself works because it just gives us a series of events without time for introspection). I couldn’t help but think though that a chance had been missed though in terms of really building on such an iconic story and the ending left me a little flat about the whole thing really.

It was ‘Return of the Living Dead’ though that really got my back up.

Despite that similar dry tone in the prose, things actually start out fairly well with Russo pondering on what changes might take place in a society that has successfully repelled its first zombie attack. The ‘spikers’ in particular are a very interesting theme on how organised religion (or perhaps its more fundamentalist offshoots) might react to the living dead suddenly taking up space in their belief systems. It’s a very pragmatic reaction on one level but you do get an edge of hysteria behind the whole thing.

The gradual return of the zombies happens in a way that’s plausible enough but that’s where the positive ended for ‘Return of the Living Dead’, at least for me. The rise of armed gangs and rapists, in the wake of the zombie attack, signals a course of events that leads to another stand off between survivors trapped in a house and the zombies outside. I was a little wary here, hadn’t I seen this happen before in the previous tale? I had but I let it go; after all, people are going to need to take shelter somewhere and a house is probably the most secure shelter that you are going to be able to find quickly.
What eventually led me to believe that Russo was rehashing ‘Night of the Living Dead’ was not only the fate of his hero but the fact that he was lifting chunks of prose from ‘Night’ and dumping them into ‘Return’ with little or no alterations. Seriously, check out page 110 (‘Night’) and then see how this page is spread word for word over pages 289-292 (‘Return’). Ben’s pondering over whether to make a break for it (‘Night’) is also reproduced as David’s ponderings in ‘Return’.

Now you could argue that events would play out in a similar fashion if there was a‘re-infestation’ of zombies. Word for word though? I really don’t think so. While there may have been intent behind this approach it just came across as nothing short of lazy and made me feel like I was basically reading the same book all over again. Coupled with that dry ‘tell it like it is’ narrative style, a story that could have pushed the entire book upwards ending casting very much the wrong kind of shadow over everything.

If you’re a die-hard fan then there may well be something here for you. Me though? I’ve got the original film to keep me happy and I personally think that should be enough for everyone. I thought I was in for a treat here but Russo’s treatment of the book left me very disappointed.

Five out of Ten

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