The Living Dead by George A. Romero and Daniel Kraus
Tor Books (August 4, 2020)
656 pages; $25.19 hardcover; $14.99 e-book
Reviewed by Blu Gilliand
George Romero’s impact on the horror genre cannot be overstated. It also cannot easily be summed up in a paragraph or two, so I won’t waste our time together. What I will tell you is that the things that made his work so impactful—the purity of his vision, the weaving of social commentary throughout his narratives, the unflinching approach to scenes of visceral horror—are preserved, upheld, and honored by the man chosen to finish Romero’s last work: Daniel Kraus.
The Living Dead is everything Romero could have delivered on film had be been granted the budget and tools of a James Cameron or a Christopher Nolan. This is a sprawling, epic account of the zombie apocalypse from the beginning—and yes, that means this is outside the continuity of Romero’s films. The rules are the same, but don’t go in expecting references or Easter eggs pointing to your favorite characters from Night, Dawn, Day, or the others. I’m not a scholar of those films, but I’ve seen them multiple times, and if the references are there, they’re buried deep.
This clean-slate approach allows the authors to shed any baggage and go all-in with new characters and situations. Of those, we get plenty: a pair of morgue workers who may be the first of the living to see the rising of the dead; a young girl who flees her trailer park home and her emotionally unstable brother, hooking up with a blues musician along the way; the crew of a United States warship, anchored at sea and fighting not only rise of the dead, but the rise of dangerous cult among its personnel; and a rag-tag news team on the last broadcasting station.
The authors use the book’s expansive page count (656 pages, y’all) to get us invested emotionally in this large cast. We spend plenty of time learning about their histories and motivations, and it’s time well spent. This book is immersive—it’s not a book you’re going to read, it’s a book you’re going to live in for a time. That’s the kind of book I welcome.
Of course, that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and those who argue for a leaner page count may have a point; maybe it’s not necessary to know so much about how the hierarchy of a warship works, or to indulge in the many anatomical and procedural details of autopsies, or to examine the ebbs and flows of power in the world of cable news. For me, those details add color and shading to the world I’m experiencing; to others, it’s stuff they have to slog through to get to the point. To each his own. In this reviewer’s opinion, the authors struck the right balance, and work in tons of detail without sacrificing a single ounce of tension.
We also get some insight into the zombies—or ghouls, as they’re referred to most frequently here. Even hinting at the motivations of the mindless undead was a risky proposition, but what we get is a look at the hunger that drives them. The authors present this in a way that doesn’t diminish the threat; rather, it enhances it.
For those curious about how this collaboration came together, and what exactly Romero had done on this novel before his death, Kraus goes into great detail in his afterword. (He also discusses this in an interview in the upcoming issue of Cemetery Dance magazine.) It was, by all accounts. a Herculean task, and I think the best compliment I can give Kraus is that I imagine this novel is very, very close to what Romero intended and wanted. I think die-hard fans of Romero’s films are going to, uh, eat this up. (Sorry.)
This is the kind of event that doesn’t happen every day in horror. Fortunately, thanks to the talent and dedication of Kraus, The Living Dead will not go down as a sad, cash-grab footnote in Romero’s career. Instead, it’s a crowning achievement, serving as the fond farewell that George Romero deserves.