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Undead (Titan Books)

Review by: 
Black Gloves
John Russo
Publication Date: 
Titan Books
Bottom Line: 

In the mid-sixties, John Russo was the co-screenwriting partner of the director and writer George A. Romero, at their Pittsburgh based production company Latent Image.  Over the course of 1967, the two  aspiring filmmakers developed the outline and the screenplay of what then became the original 1968 zombie horror flick  “Night of the Living Dead”, working on and planning the project together between producing TV spots for local companies before going their separate ways soon after the release of the  finished movie. Russo goes into some detail about exactly how the creative process worked between the two of them, how that screenplay took the shape it did, and who contributed what to the film which eventually emerged out of it, in the introduction to this present volume from Titan Books -- which contains Russo’s 1973 novelisation for Warner Books of the original Romero & Russo “Night of the Living Dead” screenplay. By the time Russo wrote that novelisation (which sticks fairly closely to the film version we all know) he’d already worked out with other colleagues from Latent Image a screenplay for a sequel called “Return of the Living Dead”, which he also  then novelised. This is where things get slightly more complicated:  Dan O’Bannon’s 1985 film of the same name started life as an adaptation of Russo’s screenplay, but O’Bannon ended up completely re-writing it in a comedy horror style, seeding a successful eighties zombie franchise in its own right, which ran parallel to Romero’s (and was considerably more successful at the box office than Romero’s third sequel, “Day of the Dead”, at the time). To add to the confusion, Russo also novelised this revised film version – also called “Return of the Living Dead” – despite it having no relation to his original screenplay. So, to be clear, Titan Book’s new paperback volume includes both of Russo’s ‘original’ novelised treatments (not the comic horror Dan O’Bannon one) under the umbrella title “Undead”, both serving as a fascinating glimpse into an alternative zombie vision from the one developed by George A. Romero in his subsequent sequels, “Dawn of the Dead” [1978] and “Day of the Dead” [1985].

There’s little point in going into too much detail as regards the plot of “Night of the Living Dead”. Anyone reading this will doubtless be more than familiar with it and if not, it’s easily available on countless DVD incarnations of varying quality (a tip though: don’t bother with the 30th Anniversary edition!). The tale begins in the same way: siblings Johnny and Barbara visit a small cemetery in Pennsylvania to lay a wreath at their father’s grave. From here, things quickly spiral into a nightmare, the famous scene in which the two are assaulted by a lurching figure who kills Johnny plays out in the same way, and Barbara’s escape and subsequent sanctuary in a small isolated farmhouse where she meets Ben and the small group of survivors lying low in the cellar there, hoping for protection from the marauding hordes of flesh eating zombies that soon converge on the barricaded dwelling, provides the book with the same tightly focused narrative as it did for Romero’s tense, bleak and ultimately ironic classic.

The differences mainly come from embellishments of description the author is able to indulge in with the novel form that can’t be accommodated so easily on film. The state of mind of the various protagonists is more clearly delineated, especially that of Ben, whose attempt to take control through strident masculine action in barricading the doors and windows, comes across much more clearly as his characteristic form of psychological survival strategy than it does on screen, for instance. We learn something of the original occupants of the farmhouse and what must have happened to them, and the description of Ben dragging the half-eaten corpse of the old woman who once lived there (glimpsed lying at the top of the stairs in the film version) into a darkened upstairs bedroom, and then having to move it again into what proves to have been a child’s room when the group need to use the original room as a vantage point for throwing Molotov cocktails when they stage their ill-fated escape attempt, provides an extra sense of eeriness not addressed in the film.

The only extra material which isn’t in the film at all in any shape or form is also significant in revealing the crux of the main difference in approach between Romero and Russo’s handling of the zombie event and what it ultimately represents. In the film, authentic-looking news footage, watched by the occupants of the barricaded house in an emergency broadcast, which shows state troopers and an armed posse of redneck hunters setting out to bring the emergency under control but displaying unseemly enthusiasm and relish for their task, is used to draw a parallel with the social unrest then current in contemporary society, and the sometimes brutal responses to it from the authorities. This is just the prelude to what turns out to be the deeply ironical ending of the film -- which is the only time we see anyone else but the six protagonists on screen unless as part of the movie’s faked news reportage.

Russo’s novel, though, actually takes time out from the tense and increasingly desperate situation to join Sheriff McClellan and his posse as they head cross country to deal with the zombie menace, attempting to rescue stranded householders, setting up camp overnight, and all the while heading for the farmhouse commandeered by the main protagonists, which they believe to be inhabited by a grandmother and her parentless grandson. McClellan becomes much more of a sympathetic, down to earth and essentially decent  person than the impression one gets from a consideration of the film’s treatment of such authority figures would lead us to believe, despite what happens at the end. This is important for Russo’s second novel, his own follow-up to “Night of the Living Dead”, which provides an entirely different account of events, with a completely different agenda to that of George A. Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”.  

 In “Return of the Living Dead”, Sheriff McClellan is the only returning character from the first novel, with events taking place ten years after those of the previous story. A child’s funeral in which the religious ceremony culminates in the father hammering a metal spike into his dead daughter’s forehead sets up the intriguingly different premise at the heart of Russo’s sequel, which is that, unlike in Romero’s version of events, the incident depicted in the first film and novel was a brief, unexplained fortean anomaly which only affected certain areas in the U.S. and for which no one has in the meantime been able to find any convincing explanation. Since then, the dead have ceased coming back to life and people have largely tried to forget the incident ever happened, since it doesn’t sit well with their sense of a rational universe. Isolated religious communities have developed their own theology on the matter though, seeing the event as Satan’s curse and an attempt to thwart God’s intended plan for mankind. When a fatal bus crash occurs near the small church, a ‘posse’ of the devout immediately set out to spike them, to make sure they don’t come back to life, an activity considered barbaric and lawless by McClellan and the general authorities.

Rather than a further escalation of an on-going situation then, Russo’s sequel is more concerned with the psychology of people reacting to an unfathomable event that happened a long time ago in the past, and which has since come to seem unreal to many younger people and even to some who were there at the time. When the dead do eventually become re-animated as flesh-eating ‘ghouls’ once more (and Russo has some fun ratcheting up the suspense and keeping us guessing as to exactly when that will happen in the first half of the novel), the phenomena seems to be that much more widespread and is accompanied and made worse by the lawlessness which it also unleashes – an element which was barely addressed in the first film. The zombie plague soon becomes almost merely the backdrop to the widespread looting, violence and burglary carried out by violently disposed criminals who seek to take advantage of it. Russo’s book seems much more a response to, and written in the same vein as, the bleak vision that was being offered up in contemporary horror films of the day (the book was written in 1973 and published in 1978) such as “The Last House on the Left” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, themselves a reaction to an increasing perception that society was being consumed in urban violence and social decay and a breakdown in law and order (I’m writing this on a morning in which mobs of marauding criminal looters seem to have taken complete control of my country through online social networking, while entire western economies go to the wall. Need I say more?). Romero addressed the same issues in a much more satirical manner while Russo opts for staging a stark “Last House on the Left” scenario that starts out at the Miller household, where a strict, religious fundamentalist father forces his three daughters to take part in ‘spiking’ the bodies of the dead but faces a teenage rebellion from one of his adolescent girls, who unfortunately chooses to leave home on the day the dead once again return to life to eat the flesh of the living.

A home invasion from a group of opportunist thugs, a rape of one of the daughters and a bloody home child birth makes up the core of the action, with two State Troopers attempting to restore order in a lawless landscape bestrode by the living dead, selfish frightened householders and criminals. It’s a  much less tightly focused story than its predecessor, with the action taking place in a number of locales, but Russo comes up with a number of disturbing scenarios including one involving a new-born baby which was clearly filched for Zack Snyder’s remake of “Dawn of the Dead”. If anything, the tone here is even bleaker than in Romero and Russo’s original, with there being no sense that the sympathetic characters will in the end prevail -- and, once again, the most acute danger often ends up coming from human thoughtlessness and ironic misidentification on the part of the Law. “Return of the Living Dead” ultimately extends the elements of the original story which were in sympathy with the Western genre, with less emphasis on the siege motif and more on a lawman’s hunt for justice picked out against a dangerous zombie-infested landscape. Russo’s writing is stripped down and direct, a style which can occasionally become a little tedious but which is generally suited to the stark brutalism of the material. Ultimately it’s more of an action and suspense adventure with a lot of gory horror (there’s much more description of gruesome bodily dismemberment, relayed in Russo’s dispassionately direct style, than there was in the original novel) and the same stoic sense of human nature condemned to play out the same mistakes again and again. It’s an interesting take on zombie lore, but Romero developed the idea much more piquantly with his original trilogy (although seems to have lost focus since) and this will only ever be a curiosity alongside that classic triptych, although Russo is apparently planning his own cinematic sequel, “Escape from the Living Dead”, for a 2011 release.

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