When people think Night of the Living Dead, they think George A. Romero, but another man was as integral a part of getting that iconic film made, and that’s Romero’s old advertising partner, John A. Russo, who co-wrote the screenplay. While Romero’s star continued to rise following Night of the Living Dead, Russo took to writing and directing little-seen b-movies like The Booby Hatch and Midnight, as well as continuing to cash in on all thinks Night of the Living Dead related, including writing and producing the popular parody, Return of the Living Dead. On the surface, his “new” book, Undead, looks to be a similar cash-grab, containing both the previously released novelizations Night of the Living Dead and the original, “serious” version of Return of the Living Dead. Having seen Night of the Living Dead countless times, I have to admit that I wasn’t exactly keen on “reading it” as I can pretty much recite the film line for line. However, once I started reading, I couldn’t put the book down, and it’s changed the way I’ll look at the film forever.
Genre fans should know the story of Night of the Living Dead inside and out, and the basics aren’t all that different here. Just as in the film, we are introduced to Barbra and her brother, Johnny, as they drive to the cemetery to pay respects to their old man. It’s here that Barbra has her first encounter with the undead, and, after Johnny is killed, she flees to a remote farmhouse where she and a small band of “survivors” fight off a relentless horde of undead. It’s a simple siege tale, but an extremely effective one, and, here, with Russo’s much deeper characterizations, we truly get to know Ben, Barbra, and even the despicable (yet right all along) Harry. Not only are the individual back stories of the main characters fleshed out satisfyingly; we also get a chapter from the perspective of a zombie as well as chapters focusing on Sheriff McClelland (a bit character in the film) and his men.
The second novel, Return of the Living Dead, bears absolutely no resemblance to the seminal comedy horror favorite. This is the original version of the story, set in the same rural Pennsylvania town ten years after the events of Night of the Living Dead. Here we learn that the outbreak, still unexplained but considered by many to be a result of a space probe that crashed in the Atlantic, had its greatest impact on the East Coast and in larger cities around the world. In the decade since, people have done their best to forget, but small groups of religious zealots and doomsayers have long been expecting the dead’s return, and, after a bus accident claims the lives of dozens of passengers, one such group descends upon the scene to “spike” the heads of the deceased. They’re interrupted by the arrival of Sheriff McClelland and his men, and run off before they can finish the job. That very night, the dead rise again, but, this time, the focus is more on how men take advantage of the chaos rather than the zombies themselves. The story centers on a family held hostage by a group of looters posing as police officers who use the emergency as a means of entry into people’s homes, and then rape, murder, and rob their unsuspecting targets. It’s a dark and unsettling tale, and one that, in my mind, would have made for a fantastic sequel to the original film (and, in all honesty, is better than anything Romero’s done since Dawn of the Dead).
Undead was a truly unexpected surprise. I couldn’t have imagined I’d be so hooked by a novelization of a film I’ve seen so many times I’ve committed it to memory, but Russo’s book fleshes out the story to such a degree that, at times, I felt I was reading something completely new. Return of the Living Dead, meanwhile, is the true spiritual successor to the original, and just as terrifying and inventive. Two great (albeit short) zombie novels for the price of one? What else can I say but go out and get this sucker!