When I was around 8 years old my older (and much cooler) cousin Justin (the guy who screams SLACK JAW PUNKS on the podcast) came over to my house wild-eyed and excited about a movie he found on a random record-able VHS (how us old timers watched movies at home before Netflix). Why he was randomly watching blank VHS tapes is still a mystery, but this particular day he stumbled onto something more than family videos or soap operas reruns. Justin was never one for hyperbole and even at a young age carried himself with a cool calm, which was why he was most likely the unspoken leader of our group. To see him so excited and shaken by a movie was enough to get my attention. We regularly drank in everything and anything horror we could get our hands, but being the late 80s/early 90s that wasn’t much. This was the era of pre internet and us being children our resources were limited to the random blank VHS crap shoots and that one teenager at the local video store that clearly did not care enough about his job to stop kids from renting R rated flicks on their Mom’s account.
Justin began telling me about what he saw on that tape. A group of people trapped in a house surrounded by “demons” trying to get in and eat them. It was the most terrifying movie he has ever seen. So terrifying that when his mother had seen what he was watching she destroyed the tape with hammer. Damn here to hell. The most horrific movie ever was so close! Now I my life had new purpose. Find and watch this movie. It took some time, but I finally learned just what movie he was talking about. The demons surrounding the house were not demons, but the undead. Dead people brought back by some unknown force with the hunger for human flesh! The movie was George A. Romero’s Night of the Living and my horror loving world would never be the same.
Sadly, we lost Mr. Romero last week to cancer. This is a man who not only gave birth to the zombie (a term he hated), but also paved the way for indie cinema. The man could make a hell of a movie no matter the subject or budget, but always proved to handle the undead better than anyone. With a few undead projects in the works at the time of his passing, one that landed in my lap (just days before his passing) was Nights of the Living Dead. A horror anthology novel focused around these brain craving ghouls. George and horror writer Jonathan Mayberry collected and edited together a collection of zombie stories that take place during the first 48 hours of the outbreak that started in The Night of the Living Dead. The man may be gone, but I’ll be goddamned if he still isn’t terrifying the hell out of us!
Not only do Romero and Mayberry contribute a story, but they got a ton of great genre writers to add to this undead fire. Joe Lansdale, Brian Keene, David Wellington, John Skipp and NotLD co-writer John Russo top the list of writers who have made a name in world of zombies, but there were quite a few names on the list I had never heard of that shocked the hell out of me. Most notably Keith DeCandido. His story, “Live and From the Scene” was a fantastic take on a zombie outbreak with characters whose actions are real. It’s a story from the media’s side of the outbreak, but also a story of family, identity and death. What DeCandido did in just a handful pages is something most film makers never come close to. Lansdale’s Deadman’s Curve delivers a fast and brutal tale of drag racers caught in the middle of the outbreak in the way only Lansdale can: Pure pulpy goodness.
Two very awesome entries come from Issac Marion and John A. Russo who give us a different view on characters from the original NotLD. A very cool addition to a classic. Not all stories do this. Which is the best part of Nights of the Living. Letting all these great writers create and growing stories with Romero’s universe. I can only hope this is a continued series. What Romero and Mayberry have tapped into here is something that feels like could go on for a while. Hopefully that is the case.
Mr. Romero’s entry “John Doe” just proves that Romero still handles the topic of the dead coming back to life and eating flesh better than anybody. He taps into the human element of the story and his characters are complex and believable. Modern takes on the zombie genre attempt (some more successful than others) to do this, but no one has ever come close to what Romero can do. I am a huge fan (like most of us) of Romero and it breaks my heart to think we live in a world without him. Take comfort in knowing that the man left behind a career of work we can always revisit and gems like Nights of the Living Dead (at least for next few years) may still pop up to help keep his spirit alive.