Living Dead cover

Review by C.J. Bunce

Oddly, creepily, Tor Books had readied a virus story that was supposed to land in bookstores early in 2020.  I reviewed an advance copy here at borg in March 2020.  Writer Daniel Kraus had picked up a story begun by zombie guru George A. Romero decades ago, a story about a zombie virus that leveled our world, a behemoth 654-page follow-up to his movie series called The Living Dead: A New NovelIt was delayed, but made its debut in hardcover in August 2020, and this month it’s available for the first time in paperback.  It’s the kind of story you either gravitate toward in a pandemic, or you duck away from.  Multiple scenes from the novel have played out over the past two years.  If that sounds like something for you as you head into Halloween season, you probably have enough time to fit this book into your reading schedule.  It’s big, and it could stand an edit, but if you’re a fan of horror and zombies, you’ll probably want to check this one out.

Romero, who passed away in 2017, was the modern horror auteur, known as the “Godfather of the Dead” for his works including the films Creepshow, Monkey Shines, and an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Half, in addition to several zombie/ghoul sequels.  He inspired countless horror directors, including Edgar Wright, director of Shaun of the Dead.  But his 1968 black and white creep show is what he is known best for.  In conjunction with Romero’s estate, Kraus wrote the bulk of the novel based on more than 100 pages of story and notes from the acclaimed horror writer and director, described in an author’s note to the novel.

The nuance and 1960s style of Night of the Living Dead is long gone in The Living Dead, replaced with a fully modern zombie spectacle–think 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead.  But its framework of characters destined to have intersecting paths is like a Quentin Tarantino movie, and this is the kind of story anyone could see him adapting to the screen.  Kraus takes a Romero story treatment of what starts as “some kind of bird flu thing” and attacks it from numerous vantage points, including the unique viewpoint of the thoughts of the dead as they re-emerge as zombies.  Characters that take center stage in separate encounters include: Puerto Rican squadron pilot Jennifer Pagán, who fights off “turned” military personnel aboard the USS Olympia aircraft carrier, Karl Nashimura, a master helmsman aboard Pagán’s ship, Chuck Corso, an ambitious journalist who has never been taken seriously until he intercepts a White House internal communication reflecting a frightening turn of events, Etta Hoffman, an archivist worker in a Census Bureau records center, whose access to death data documents what could be the final years of humanity, and Greer Morgan, a young resident of a mobile home park in rural northwest Missouri who knows how to use a bow and arrow.

But the best of the novel tracks the actions of Luis Acocella, an assistant medical examiner in San Diego who experiences the first encounter with a patient affected by a strange new virus that seems to be reanimating the dead.  The story of Luis and his assistant Charlene would have made a superb novel, even if the rest of the chapters had been stripped away.  Although many zombie tales are strictly fantasy horror, the author makes some effort to provide a science fiction basis for the virus’s study.

The worst of the story is a freakish, more Clive Barker’s Hellraiser-esque examination of a demented minister on board a U.S. ship at sea that falls victim to the plague, Lt. Cmdr. William Koppenborg, which pulls the story downhill into the bowels of the worst of outrageous slasher/gore material.  That said, for horror readers, that kind of content will probably find its audience.

Like most zombie tales (Netflix’s Kingdom is a rare exception), this is not about the cause of the affliction.  The sufficiently disturbing marketing materials lay it out in brief:

It begins with one body.
It spreads quickly.
We think we know how this story ends.
We. Are. Wrong.

The struggle with any telephone book-sized volume is keeping the reader’s attention on every page.  100 pages, 200 pages, or even half the novel could have been edited down to make something more digestible.  But, as Kraus notes, the format Romero recorded as wanting for his novel was something bigger than a movie or typical story, something “epic” in scope, and the three-act structure and detailed accounts of so many major characters is the explanation for the big page count.  Kraus doesn’t maintain the action for the novel’s entirety, but many of the story elements are both compelling and thrilling.

Kraus uses hunger as his key theme, even outside the realm of zombies chomping on human flesh.  Identifying and looking for each character’s motivation, or hunger, provides a guidepost to keep the reader engaged, and it may even telegraph some of the characters’ final outcomes.  The poor reaction of the world–the White House, the military, journalists, doctors, and the average person–to a quick and deadly virus is something the author describes (and even coincidentally foresaw, to some extent) quite well.

With an endorsement by Stephen King’s son Joe Hill, The Living Dead: A New Novel will be a must-read for fans of Romero and diehard zombie fans.  It’s as over-the-top as you’d expect from a gore-filled zombie fest, so readers with a weak stomach (and anyone who may think the story of a world-consuming virus may hit a little too close to home) will probably want to pass on this one.  For the rest, The Living Dead: A New Novel is available in paperback now here at Amazon.