Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Reading is F'n Mental: John Russo's "Return of the Living Dead"

Warning: sometimes our eyes get tired of watching the CRT and we look at these strange little things called books.  Don’t worry, it won’t happen often.  This review has slight spoilers.  

Chances are you have heard of a little film called NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968).  Produced by Pittsburgh commercial house Latent Image as their first feature, the horror classic established both the career of director George Romero and zombie mythos/blueprint that is still going strong some 42 years later (witness cable TV’s recent hit THE WALKING DEAD from Frank Darabont).  Another benefactor of the film’s success has been co-scripter John Russo.  When it came time to sequelize the film years later, Romero and Russo had a parting of the ways and came to the agreement where - according to The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh - both men could make sequels but the yet unmade "RETURN couldn't be promoted as a sequel to NIGHT" (welcome to the world of American litigation!).  So while Romero went the cinematic route with DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), Russo opted to follow up the film in written form and produced the sequel novel Return of the Living Dead the same year.  One of them was more successful than the other…can you guess who?

The novel takes place 10 years after the first zombie outbreak, which was apparently a localized event on the East Coast and eventually contained.  The folks in the county that was one of the epicenters of the event are divided on precautions.  Sheriff McClelland, a carry over from the NOTLD film, takes the stubborn “we’ll deal with it if it happens again” approach while the more fanatical types insist on a ritual of “spiking” the dead by driving railroad ties into their heads to quell any attempt to return to life.  When a school bus full of children crashes, a group heads down to spike the dead but are interrupted by the sheriff before they can finish.  This results in the un-spiked dead returning to life in the morgue (it is never explained what causes the resurgence).  You would think they would be prepared for something like this, but they aren’t.

The bulk of the story centers on widower fanatic Bert Miller and his three daughters, Ann, Sue Ellen and pregnant Karen.  Unable to deal with her religious father during the beginning of the outbreak, Sue Ellen splits in the middle of the night.  Yes, she ain’t too bright.  When zombies attack their house and Bert is killed, Karen and Ann are forced to hide in an upstairs bedroom before they are rescued by a posse.  The eclectic group includes state troopers John Carter and Wade Connely, redneck chick Angel and deputized grease-ball Flack.  With them is Sue Ellen, who is now in a catatonic state.  The cops claim they rescued her while she was being attacked.  Also in tow they have two bound and gagged prisoners who the officers say are child molesters that they will use for “zombie feed” (Chris Hansen would be proud) in their attempt to get away.  The girls see this as odd behavior for law enforcement officials and, sure enough, things aren’t as they appear as Carter wants things done his way.  Things get worse as Sue Ellen’s boyfriend Billy arrives and Karen goes into labor while they are all trapped in a boarded up house that is surrounded by zombies.

Sound familiar?  Yeah, Russo is basically recreating the dynamics of NOTLD but with a few twists.  It works well in some cases as the author is able to pull a fast one on the reader due to their familiarity with the landmark film.  Russo does indeed pull some nice switches and you think things will go one way but then they don’t.  There is also a nice surprise about halfway through the novel.  On the downside, you will see the ending coming from a mile away.  Seriously, I was reading this and thinking, “C’mon, you’re not seriously going to do the exact same ending as NOTLD” and then he does.  The book also has serious problems in the logic department (after a zombie outbreak, no one in the government has taken precautions in case it happens again?).  This is actually the first fiction I’ve read by Russo and he is a pretty decent writer.  I’ll give him credit for having some fast-paced action scenes and some evocative descriptions of the zombie attacks. There are also a few oddball moments that I liked such as an encounter with some kids armed with bows and arrows.  It is one of those peculiar moments that you know would happen if the shit really went down and society collapsed.  Is it a classic horror book?  No.  Is it a fun zombie tale?  Yes.

Original published by Dale in 1978, Russo’s sequel novel has been pretty hard to come by in recent years. This was remedied last month as Kensington Fiction re-published Russo’s novelization of NOTLD and his sequel novel in the collection Undead.  Ah, yes, zombies are hot with the general public so you know Russo was going to chase that undead dollar.  Thankfully, each novel didn’t come with a vial of dirt from the NOTLD cemetery.  It is interesting to note that Russo was planning on making this book into a movie as well.  He sold the rights to producer Tom Fox in the late 70s and the film adaptation was scheduled to go before cameras in March 1981 with Russo as director/co-writer (alongside the pseudonymous sounding Edmondo Raphael) and NOTLD alum Russ “Johnny” Streiner as producer (see Variety ad below).  That adaptation of the film never got made for whatever reason. Perhaps Fox saw Russo’s directorial debut THE BOOBY HATCH (1976) and squashed that idea?  The project eventually got the services of screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, who started from scratch and only retained Russo’s title.  Russo and Steiner saw producer credits on O’Bannon's eventual film.  To make matters even more confusing, Russo wrote the novelization of the film version.  So, yes, he wrote a novelization of film that has nothing to do with his novel which the film is “adapting,” enough craziness to make my brains explode.  Mmmm, brains.

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