One of my early op/ed pieces for THIS IS INFAMOUS. Judging from the second paragraph, this 7-year-old piece was published in tandem with the release of the film version of WWZ…
The zombie craze is at an all-time high in popular culture. Pinnacle in the public eye is the television adaptation of THE WALKING DEAD, an incredible ratings and critical success. The comic book source material continues to sell out consistently at newsstands.
Hot on the heels of THE WALKING DEAD, the big-budget film adaptation of WWZ opens today. It’s drawn a bit of pre-criticism from purist loyal to Max Brook’s phenomenal novel for its depiction of the zombies and derivations from the original narrative. I believe it’s unwarranted, and fans of the novel will enjoy the movie for what it is, a blockbuster special effects film that shares a name with a beloved work of literature. Now, I am writing this sight unseen of the finished product. I know the movie was plagued with issues from day one, which is never a good sign for any movie, but I am optimistic.
What I’m really wishing for is a fresh take on zombies in the motion picture and television mediums. They’re becoming tedious as a whole, zombie films are. It’s time to up the ante and start seeking for tried and true adaptable material. The comic book medium has been beaten to death for zombies, how can you top THE WALKING DEAD? ZOMBIELAND, though a successful motion picture for the genre; failed miserably as a television program, mostly due to poor production, acting, and writing. I believe there is source material out there that has been lingering around for years and needs to, well, rise from the dead and take a bite out of the zombie market and make it infectious again.
THE RISING: Brian Keene is the current anti-hero rock star of small group of horror and suspense fiction writers, the last of a breed of authors I still affectionately call splatterpunks. The term denotes both the authors and the sub-genre of horror fiction they wrote. The books and short stories these writers pumped out pushed the envelope where horror fiction could go. The tales could be rather violent, vulgar, sexually explicit and/or/all of the above. Surprisingly these stories also have a high moralistic theme, utilizing their graphic nature to grab you by the balls and force you to pay attention to their message. Call them Aesop’s Fables with a punk rock attitude. Brian’s peers are writers the like of Joe R. Lansdale, Craig Spector, Nancy A. Collins (when she’s not writing teen-pire books), Jack Ketchum and John Skipp. Keene infuses the common, unadulterated person into his characterizations into his novels. All while utilizing the spiritual and mythological folk tales of his rearing in Pennsylvania and West Virginia for the preternatural elements present in their plots. This makes his narratives and the players that inhabit the worlds in them relatable on a level that could make Stephen King jealous.
Brian’s first full-length novel and contribution to zombie fiction, the Bram Stoker Award-winning THE RISING, is by far the first novel Hollywood needs to adapt into a zombie film. What separates THE RISING from other works of zombie fiction is the ferocity of its prose and straight up in your face violence that permeates the pages. Optioned in 2004, this property is lingering in motion-picture limbo.
As a Father’s Day treat to paternal zombie fans everywhere, Mr. Keene recently re-released his classic novel, unabridged, including nearly 30,000 words not previously published. Earlier editions were heavily edited. Father’s Day was apt, as the novel tells the story of Jim Thurmond, a man on a familiar quest to find his son. They are separated by a continent of zombie-filled, post-apocalyptic real estate. He picks up the traditional cast of fellow survivors to assist him on his quest; and this about where it ceases to be a traditional zombie tale. Not only does our protagonist have your standard shambling corpse zombies to deal with, but we quickly learn the fauna can also become undead. A flock of zombie crows is difficult to deal with, to say the least. The Hero’s Journey is well represented in the narrative, as Jim fights his way to Boston to find his son with the aid of a fellowship of companions.
Oh, and did I mention that by the novel’s end the zombies have gained sentience through demonic possession? What Hollywood needs is INTELLIGENT, SENTIENT ZOMBIES! They’ve already begun to condition us to it through films such as FIDO and WARM BODIES. This is the logical next step to fairly bend the Romero mold and THE RISING is the perfect source material. Due to this plot device, for the first time in a zombie story that I know of, our zombies have motivation other than simply munching on human flesh. A motivated bad guy fighting for a principle is a more effective antagonist. In this case, he, or it, is Ob, a demonic entity with righteous purpose in this hellish new world.
THE RISING has built-in franchise capabilities, as well. The sequel, CITY OF THE DEAD answers the mysteries of THE RISING and further expands the mythology of its post-apocalyptic world. Everything Hollywood wants in a single package.
Brian also wrote the short-lived THE LAST ZOMBIE comic book, and since comic-book is one of Hollywood’s current favorite words. With all these factors considered, Keene could very well become the motion picture industry’s new zombie darling and surpass Robert Kirkman. I say it’s time to “Book him, Dano!”
BOOK OF THE DEAD: The foremost writers to front the initial splatterpunk “craze” of the late 80’s and early 90’s were John Skipp & Craig Spector, a writing duo hailing from Harrisburg, PA; not far from the Pennsylvania Dutch counties that helped produced Brian Keene’s vivid imagination. The writing team has since separated, but the printed legacy that is their body of work lives on. An adaptation of their last novel together, ANIMALS, was made into a low budget movie that can be found online through various outlets. John Skipp now writes with Cody Goodfellow, and though enjoyable, I find their material to lack the pizzazz and raw, written attitude of the Skipp & Spector days. Craig’s work, on the other hand, still maintains the same narrative style as the classic Skipp & Spector books, yet lacks that edge that I believe John Skipp added to their collaborations.
Not to be confused with the ancient Egyptian tome The Book of the Dead, the 1989 horror anthology BOOK OF THE DEAD was Skipp & Spector’s first editorial effort. Conceived as an anthology of short stories surrounding the events in George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, BOOK OF THE DEAD collects some of the most visceral and entertaining zombie stories ever written. Featuring stories by, among others; Stephen King, Joe R. Lansdale, David J. Schow, and Richard Laymon, BOOK OF THE DEAD is considered to be among the first example of modern “zombie literature.” With this in mind, why hasn’t HBO or another cable network picked this up to make what would essentially become the greatest zombie anthology series we’ve ever seen on the tube?
The jewel of the collection is David Schow’s Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy. Wormboy is your typical survival nut, who teams up with a group born again Jesus freaks to wage war on opposite hills in a cemetery with the insane Right Reverend Jerry and his zombie Deacons. Wormboy’s M60 is named Zombo. And it is “swell.” The story is not for the faint of heart as it breaches all conventions of moral ambiguity and goes right for the jugular with controversial topics and a gross-out twist ending for the ages.
Sometimes you have to go old school and “reboot.” Hollywood loves that word, it seems to be the magic term to drop in a pitch. With this source material, we can re-imagine zombies in the public eye through the voices of a plethora of talented writers. BOOK OF THE DEAD clearly fills the criteria, with a trilogy of these collections coming out since, any smart cable network could pick up a huge ratings boost and give THE WALKING DEAD a run for its money with a multi-seasonal, zombie-themed, hour-long program.
Zombies are nothing new to the creative minds of writers. For years fantastic words breaching the subject of the mindless undead have graced bookshelves. I believe it is time for the venerable tales that sit on the shelves of used book stores to reach a new audience, televised or theatrical. They can breathe fresh life into a film genre, though still popular, that is becoming stagnant. How many times can we project what is fundamentally survival horror in a refreshing manner? The framework for the zombie mythology that was laid by George Romero can only be twisted and bent so much until it is no longer a zombie movie at all.