The White House briefing room seethes with reporters. Many are confused, enraged and even terrified. All, though, are dead focused on the press secretary.
“I think we are very much still in a discovery period regarding who They are and what They want,” she says.
A reporter interrupts her. “These are very dangerous words, you understand? They? Them? To anyone in this country who looks differently, or speaks differently, or behaves differently? Do you see how using language like this, right now, could lead to more civilian deaths?”
The press secretary doesn’t respond to the question, because Fox News butts in — “Isn’t it possible this is an act of radical Islamic terrorism?”
So begins the apocalypse in George Romero and Daniel Kraus’s “The Living Dead.” Not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with the American government bungling its response to a devastating pandemic, and fanning the flames of division at a time when everyone needs to pull together. Sound familiar?
George Romero, who created, or at least finalized, the modern concept of the zombie, had been working on this novel for decades before his death in 2017. Daniel Kraus, co-author of “The Shape of Water” novel, swooped in to finish it. The book, at 635 pages, is thick enough to be wielded as a weapon if the dead do indeed walk (and in the last half of 2020, who knows at this point?).
“The Living Dead” has a breadth Romero, whose films were usually low budget and independent, never achieved. Without needing to rely on special effects, which even in Romero’s masterpieces weren’t always the most convincing, Romero and Kraus’s zombies shamble through, and destroy, a wide range of locales all over North America. An aircraft carrier off the coast of California and Toronto’s Fort York are two highlights. The characters also vary in color, gender and sexuality, continuing and expanding on Romero’s interest in America’s diversity and how the American mainstream responds to it, which has been clear since his first zombie film, ’68’s “Night of The Living Dead.”
Kraus and Romero maintain a light, page-turning prose, with a descriptive flair, reminiscent of Stephen King at his best. The novel also has a razor sharp sense of time, averting the potholes that long, apocalyptic fiction usually stumbles into. Stephen King’s “The Stand,” while a masterwork, tears forward as a virus destroys America, but stalls after the outbreak ends, and never quite captures its initial tension. Even the ever-popular “The Walking Dead” series, both on page and screen, loses its momentum as the narrative leaves behind the horrifying intensity of total, apocalyptic chaos.
“The Living Dead,” unlike its shambling creatures, rockets forward until the very last page. It knows when to draw out tense moments of uncertainty, when to explode in bloody horror, and when to condense and summarize. This helps since the narrative is split between a number of viewpoint characters, and takes place over 15 years. When the virus ceases to be a threat, like in “The Stand” and “The Walking Dead,” things are no less intense since the factors that let the disease run rampant, America’s myriad divisions, have only worsened. This book is terrifying cover to cover as its plot, while full of the gore, bullets and ironic, sanguinary Romero wit fans will expect, has a crushing, almost prophetic relevance.
In “Night of the Living Dead,” a Black character survives hordes of zombies, only to be killed by white militiamen in the film’s final frame. In “Dawn of The Dead,” zombies are drawn to a shopping mall, and wander dead-eyed through its saccharine halls. In “Land of the Dead,” the rich live on the upper floors of a skyscraper, while the lower classes make dangerous supply runs to maintain their lavish lifestyles.
“The Living Dead” packs these satirical threads into one epic narrative, threading together Romero’s interests in America’s prejudice, consumerism, wealth gap and institutional failure. By doing so, it unintentionally analyzes what is helping the COVID-19 pandemic utterly destroy America.
The zombie attacks begin in nursing homes and low income areas. Middle and upper class Americans ignore them as long as possible, and the government does not offer a coordinated response, instead playing down the danger until the last possible moment. This is nothing far-fetched. As one character puts it, “It’s Regan laughing off AIDS. It’s Bush saying, ‘Mission accomplished.’ ” It is also Trump and his cronies ignoring COVID-19.
“If our inattention is part of why this started where it started, and why no one can stop it . . . Maybe it had to happen,” another character laments. “It feels like we’ve been sleepwalking through a dreamworld we convinced ourselves was working just fine for everyone. It may be too late, but at least we’re waking up.”
As the novel progresses, though, most Americans don’t “wake up.” When zombies stagger through American streets, national divides are only heightened. San Diego’s white people blame the virus on Latinos, those in Chicago blame inner city gangs and in Missouri they blame the town’s recently settled Syrian refugees. Two news anchors, one Republican and one Democrat, beat one another senseless instead of cooperating to spread valuable, life-saving information. In one especially horrifying sequence, a bullied high schooler walks to school with a rifle.
“This was always the way it was going to end,” he says. “Me versus Them, until there’s no me left.”
With the government fanning the flames of this “otherization,” mass, almost-genocidal violence, on top of the undead plague, rips through the country.
Reading it all play out is a hair-tearing exercise in frustration, especially in the throes of COVID-19. How can a threat as obvious as the undead catch an entire country unawares, destroying all hope for recovery before the government even tries to do anything but throw around blame? Since March, America has seen exactly how.
Romero’s films capture how zombies bring out the worst in people, how cowardice, selfishness and prejudice prevent Americans from working together in times of crisis. “The Living Dead” nails this theme perfectly, with a depth and scale previously unattempted. Hope for progress is repeatedly neared, only to be torn to pieces by people unwilling, or perhaps unable, to work past their differences.
In another era, the book would be called over the top, and perhaps too overt in its satire. Yet, if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that any American problem, be it zombies, climate change, gun violence or a coronavirus, will be ignored by the mainstream and those who preserve it, until the problem is ripping down their front doors. By then, it'll be too late.