Romero on the set of Land of the Dead (2005)
By Tony Williams.
Recognizing industry obstructions that became increasingly difficult for him to express the full dimensions of his creative talent he decided to work on a novel that, like his original literary work elsewhere, would have been ideal film material, had he full autonomy.”
Despite the passing of George A. Romero (1940-2017), his legacy will still be with us. In addition, the Pittsburgh-based George A. Romero Foundation (1) currently archives his work, which will eventually include all the different screenplay versions of films he did make as well as material relating to projects he was unable to gain support for. Many recent rediscoveries such as the previously “lost” The Amusement Park also exist. (2) Mistakenly and exclusively identified as a director of zombie films, Romero was a more multi-faceted talent. He faced major obstacles in his lifetime, as he valiantly fought the industrial machine characteristic of independent and commercial filmmaking that always dissipates creative energies. Yet, he was also a writer, having co-written the novelization of Dawn of the Dead with Susanna Sparrow and several other works. (3)
He began conceiving The Living Dead (written with Daniel Kraus, New York: Tor Books, 2020) at a time when creative frustration with the film industry began to dominate his mind, even more than it did before. This posthumous collaboration intuitively and unconsciously evokes that spirit of the “visual novel” as conceived by Emile Zola as well as allowing Romero to develop his cinematic ideas in a more epic literary manner. Structurally, The Living Dead parallels the method whereby which Romero’s “zombie films” contained extensions and multiple perspectives on themes that interested him and that he wished to develop further. (4) In Romero’s case, this did not involve 19th-Impressionist art but the EC Comic Book tradition, unusual movies such as The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), the 70s radical aspects of the horror genre, and a keen eye for social critique and grotesque satire very much akin to the writings of George Lippard (1822-1854) especially The Monks of Monk Hall/The Quaker City (1845) which Romero may also have been unaware of but, like the Zola tradition, still unconsciously influenced his work. (5) Although reviewers may ascribe the epic structure to Daniel Kraus due to his employment of this form in his Zebulon Finch novels, one of Romero’s unrealized projects was a version of Stephen King’s epic work The Stand (1978) that eventually appeared in two TV series mini-versions during 1994 and 2020.
Enter co-writer Daniel Kraus. Well known for his Gothic teen novels such as the two-part epic narrative The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch (2015/2016), collaboration with Guillermo Del Toro on Trollhunters (2015), as well as being a television editor and director, he gained the co-operation of the Romero Estate to write the novel Romero originally envisaged from various drafts available. As Kraus states, “he left a half-finished picture” so he had to develop what was left. (6) These included initial drafts written by Romero, two chapters from the earlier conceived “The Death of Death” written for a website, a short story “Outpost #5,” a nine-page letter where Romero described where he intended to take various plot threads, and Romero’s published “John Doe” which outlines the opening chapters of The Living Dead. (7) Kraus intended to “carry on in George’s spirit” with creative choices “guided by my interpretation of George’s inclinations” based upon close re-viewings of all his zombie films, and re-discovery of The Amusement Park that influenced the old-age aspect within the final part of the novel. (8) The reconstruction is creative but true to Romero’s spirit, far removed from August Derleth’s later “completions” of H.P. Lovecraft’s unfinished projects.
The Living Dead is Romero’s literary counterpart to his films, one which focuses less on “scary monsters” but more on his real source of fear that had little, if anything, to do with the horror genre formula. In other words, as Kraus aptly puts it. “What shook him up was rooted in daily life.” (9) Structured into “Three Acts” (and here we must remember Romero’s interest in local theater and how he cast many non-star actors deliberately from stage), it comprises several chapters dealing with a group of characters who will re-appear, either frequently or intermittently throughout the narrative (very much like those in Jacques Rivette’s challenging 1971 Out One) or reunite at the end. Although Romero was again probably not conscious of this, The Living Dead bears a strong structural resemblance to Balzac’s The Human Comedy (1833-35) and a series with many players like Zola’s epic series of novels, only this time it is a dark twenty-first century dystopic version of humanity facing a much more grim fate than those characters in the French writer’s historical era.
The new environment does offer utopian possibilities for the beginning of a new society but…this goal is always tentative and liable to demolition at any moment.”
It is a concept intuitively shared by co-writer Daniel Kraus, whose Zebulon Finch novels present a dark canvas of American history presented under the deceptive label of a teen novel very similar to Romero’s use of the horror genre to present his own particular ideas. In various interviews, Kraus has frequently spoken of misleading industry labels used to define his work as being not particularly accurate concerning the themes he chooses to explore in a much more thoughtful manner than this categorization suggests. Here he shares much in common with Romero. Kraus’s approach resembles Diary of the Dead (2007) that was intended as the first part of several acts that would be devoted to individual characters who initially appeared there. Sadly, only Sarge and his group would feature in Romero’s final film, Survival of the Dead (2009). Had Romero been given the green light for all his unrealized projects, he probably would have been busy filming. However, recognizing industry obstructions that became increasingly difficult for him to express the full dimensions of his creative talent he decided to work on a novel that, like his original literary work elsewhere, would have been ideal film material, had he full autonomy. With the advantage of working on an “epic” that the studio system would never have permitted, he posthumously gained an ideal collaborator in Daniel Kraus whose last two books are also epic and written in the clear and coherent manner that parallel Romero’s films. Little formal differences exist between the cinematic and the literary in The Living Dead. In many ways, it is a “cinematic novel” akin to Zola’s “visual novel” of the 19th century, with emphasis not being on the metaphoric zombie trope but more on a dark vision of the human condition. This parallels Daniel Kraus’s mode of authorship in the Zebulon Finch books, where the title character’s condition is less significant than his changing development and observations within the hostile social environments he finds himself. Finch’s encounters with 1950s suburbia and the world of The Right Stuff (1983) are two such compelling examples.
Three Acts comprise The Living Dead – Act One: The Birth of Death, extending over a two week period; Act Two: The Life of Death, covering eleven years; and Act Three: The Death of Death, featuring one day. The final sentence of the novel derived from that “little short story” Anubis that inspired the initial Romero trilogy. (10) All characters, major or minor, occupy key segments of these acts, according to the changing roles they will play in the story, some surviving while others leave the stage once they fulfil their functions, very much like members of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart family tree. Again, although Romero never read any Zola, his work bears an intuitive unconscious resemblance to a writer who was as much a social critic of his era as was the director within his own particular historical context.
The opening Act One segment “John Doe” repeats and develops the original premise of Romero’s similarly titled short story. It narrates the first zombie appearance and effect on various characters. Some continue until the end of the story; others leave the narrative permanently at certain points, or appear as supposedly background inessential objects like online correspondents Annie Teller and Tawna Maydew (pp. 72-73), occurring intermittently throughout the text (pp. 259-266) until their final poignant reunion in the last chapter. (11) The significance of the entire novel lies in the fact that it not only works within its own literary right but also contains many parallels to key issues in Romero films such as class, race, gender, authoritarian abuse of power, and sexuality. It only takes a stretch of the imagination for those familiar with the films to recognize key connections uniting literary text to cinematic authorship. This novel resembles those unpublished screenplays formerly available on the website of the late Larry Cohen (1936-2019) inviting readers to recreate the written text imaginatively as completed films. Thus, The Living Dead operates collaboratively both as a novel and as a source for the film that Romero never lived to complete. The battle zone world of media receives several chapters with Romero developing critiques delivered in Martin (1977), Dawn of the Dead (1979), Diary of the Dead, and Survival to even greater heights ruthlessly dissecting corporate narcissistic personality types and their vicious power struggles carried to logical violent conclusions (pp. 119-171). Glamorous images of media personalities receive appropriate rewards in bodily decay, zombie transformation, or an unexpected type of face lift that newscaster Chuck Corso will later experience at the hands of Annie Teller, “one that would, at long last, make him comfortable with the nickname he’d never liked: the Face” (p. 394).
Devastating images of the dysfunctional aspects of military life centered on a US aircraft carrier occur:
The military’s dirty secret was that it attracted not only the best Americans but the worst – the racist, the sexist, the bloodthirsty, the continually furious – and a carrier threw both halves together in a thousand-foot ninety-seven-ton, nuclear-powered coliseum.” (p.250)
The aircraft carrier becomes a version of Fiddler’s Green in Land with the “chosen few” occupying the higher echelons and the unwanted below decks. “All upper-floor units are filled, sorry. We don’t want your kind up here” (p.304). Those recently victimized by an unexpected “regime change” find themselves in the position of Cholo in Land of the Dead (2005), outcasts from the society within which they falsely believed they had a secure place.
Dystopic aspects of internet aggression that demolished George’s early optimistic hopes for a new media democracy also receive attention as they do in Diary. As Kraus comments in his afterword concerning Romero’s early website and his eventual disillusionment with it, “It was one more heartbreak: his hopes lifted by a new democratic ideal only to see it ruined by familiar, ugly behaviors. Exactly the sort of thing he made movies about” (Kraus, p.644).
One remarkable feature of this novel is its reference to zombie perception. In previous films we viewed Bub in Day and Big Daddy in Land from the outside though alert viewers could make informed guesses as to their mode of perception. Here Romero and Kraus have sections enabling us to perceive zombie thought from the inside (see p. 206-209; 251-255; 447-449; the “stream-of-consciousness technique in pp.596-597); that develops elements in the short story Outpost #5 (see Kraus, p. 644). Fourteen minutes following her death from zombie infection, Annie Teller experiences a symbiotic vision that suggests a communal type of zombie experience: “She was still Annie Teller – he name tag insisted it –but not only Annie Teller. She was also Katrina Goteberg. She was also several others. She was all of Them. She is all of you” (p. 265).
Martin’s critique of the dangerous aspects of religious fundamentalism again receives critical condemnation in the figure of aircraft carrier Catholic Chaplin Father Bill who, like other Romero aggressive humans, proves more of a danger than the zombies themselves (pp. 228-233), especially with his repressed pornographic sensibilities incarnating a new millennium version of the Gothic (p. 231). So many motifs from Romero’s cinema emerge. The novel features many sympathetically depicted ethnic characters. Gay Boatswain’s Mate Karl Nishimura’s recognizes the roots of chaos in human society when the zombie outbreak results in battle stations sirens:
Comm devices everywhere, yet no ability to communicate.
This is how the world ends, Nishimura thought.” (p. 238)
Autopsy Californian co-workers Luis Acocella and Bronx-born Charlie Rutkowski become Romero’s version of Nicholas Ray’s “last romantic couple” from They Live by Night (1947) engaging in a brief affair before one poignantly dies like Roger in Dawn of the Dead. They evoke the real-life relationship between Romero and his last wife, Suzanne (Kraus, p. 647) as well as recalling that brief romantic moment between Dr. Watts (Richard France) and his colleague (Edith Bell) in The Crazies (1973). Luis expires to the sound of Victor Young’s score for The Quiet Man (1952) as Romero also did (pp. 373, 583). Charlie disappears from the scene mid-way through the novel only to re-emerge later like Romero’s other characters. African-Americans Muse and Greer find themselves in a second Civil War resembling the first in Missouri (p. 325). They later see two zombies eating a horse, an alternative means of food supply that also occurs in Survival (p. 385).
Eleven years later in Washington D.C., Annie Hoffman (initially encountered in the first chapter) still works at the Hoffmann Archive of Tales from the New World cataloging new Dark Age narratives far more fantastic than those from the original writer’s pen. She also preserves what remains of human history before she leaves the building (pp. 414-441). The Archive contains many references to the subject of Romero’s films such as Jack’s Wife (1971), The Crazies), Martin (1977), Knightriders (1981), Monkey Shines (1988), “strange tales…they might remind us who we used to be, and who we tried to be, and that recollection could save the world” (p. 426). Later, the final apocalypse described in the novel’s closing chapters refers to Night of the Living Dead, Dawn, and Day blurring boundaries between humans and zombies and mourning lost opportunities (p.622). This is a fitting tribute for Romero’s legacy. Far from being escapist fantasies, all Romero films are socially grounded warnings.
The final Act occurs in Toronto, a place Romero loved and where he settled for the remainder of his life. In some of his films, Canada represents a new beginning and a possible utopia but he also realized that utopias are vulnerable. Such is the case with the Third Act of The Living Dead. It contains an area where zombies deteriorate and expire becoming as vulnerable as those senior citizens in The Amusement Park. Several earlier characters such as Nishimura, Etta, Charlie, the Face, and Greer reunite for the final encounter with new forces of darkness.
In his interview transcript with Etta, the Face draws some relevant conclusions concerning technological control over human lives that relate to our own contemporary existence:
Phones, radios, computers – I stopped trying to get them to work. Once you let go like that, it’s amazing. You start truly seeing how dependent we’d become. All the stuff that was supposed to connect us to one another, it got created too fast, before we knew what we were doing, and it ruined us…We created technology we couldn’t live without. How dumb was that? We made ourselves into brain-dead zombies.” (p. 465)
Compassion also develops among the survivors for fragile decomposing zombies who are taken to a hospice area where they can finally expire. The new environment does offer utopian possibilities for the beginning of a new society but, as in his other films and story The Little World of Humongo Bongo, this goal is always tentative and liable to demolition at any moment. Such is the case with The Living Dead. Despite the fact that one central character experiences a way beyond the plague as David does in The Crazies, the emergence of a right-wing counter revolution inspired by a Donald Trump character who calls for the construction of a wall to keep outsiders away (pp. 591-2), questions optimistic hopes for a new society. (12) The penultimate chapter leaves Charlie and Etta facing an uncertain future while the final one ends with Romero’s recollection of the final line of Anubis – “For now, the dead win” (p. 635). The director’s wheel reaches its full circle.
The Living Dead is a worthy accomplishment deserving constant re-reading despite its length since it contains so many fascinating insights and connections that fall into place it unfolds. It is a work that fully realizes the literary legacy Romero intended to leave. Co-author Daniel Kraus, creatively and symbiotically, develops the premises within the director’s material and presents it in a sincere manner as a legacy honoring Romero’s intentions. It is a fitting complement and conclusion to the work he left on celluloid.
Read my interview with Daniel Kraus here.
2. https://www.cgmagonline.com/2019/09/20/lost-george-romero-film-the-amusement-park-premiering-this-october/; https://movieweb.com/the-amusement-park-release-date-george-a-romero/. Incorrect surname to one critic cited!
3. Romero collaborated with Susanna Sparrow on two novelizations of his films – Martin. New York: Stein and Day, 1977, and Dawn of the Dead, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978, the last containing Romero’s original scripted pessimistic conclusion. He also wrote and illustrated a children’s book, The Little World of Humongo Bongo. Peterborough, Canada, Chizine Publications, 2018, first published in Belgium in 1996, as well as several short stories elsewhere. He also wrote two graphic novels Toe Tags DC Comics (2004-2005) and Empire of the Dead. Marvel Comics 2014-2015. From a recent interview more material may appear. See https://ew.com/books/george-romero-living-dead-daniel-kraus/
4. See William J. Berg, The Visual Novel: Emile Zola and the Art of his Times. Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 1992.
5. This will be the subject of a future “Parting Words” editorial in a future print issue of Film International. Also, the zombie procession filling Slowtown towards the end of The Living Dead evokes Devil Bug’s vision of a future America in The Monks of Monk Hall. Betrayal of past utopian premises is common to both Lippard and Romero in their different works.
6. Daniel Kraus, “Stay Scared: a Coauthor’s’ Note,” The Living Dead, p. 645
7. Op. Cit. pp. 638,643-645; George A. Romero, “John Doe,” Nights of the Living Dead. Eds. Jonathan Maberry and George A. Romero. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2017, pp. 97-114.
8. Kraus, op. cit. 646, 647, 649.
9. Op. cit. 642.
10. Kraus, 648.
11. From this point I will quote the page numbers of the Romero/Kraus text.
12. This character also appears in Romero’s Toe Tags. See Tony Williams. “A Last Testament: The George A. Romero Graphic Novel”. Film International 16.3 (2018). p. 50.
Tony Williams is an independent critic and a Contributing Editor to Film international.