Legendary filmmaker George A. Romero may have left this plane of existence behind in 2017, but his legacy — the flesh-eating zombies that first rose from their graves in his 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead and have permeated pop culture in the decades since — lives on.
At the time of his death at age 77, Romero was working on a novel called The Living Dead that he intended as his magnum opus on the subject — free from the constrictions of budgets, MPAA ratings, and studio mandates. Romero intended to use the page to tell the story he always wanted to put on the screen, with no conditions or roadblocks.
Sadly, Romero passed away before completing the book. But his widow, Suzanne Desrocher-Romero, enlisted noted novelist Daniel Kraus — who had previously collaborated with Guillermo del Toro on the novel version of the Oscar-winning film The Shape of Water — to complete the now-massive 650-page tome, which is out Aug. 4.
Kraus and Desrocher-Romero both showed up for today's Comic-Con@Home panel on the book and Romero's iconic place in horror history.
"George loved to write and was constantly writing, and he was writing this story," says Desrocher-Romero about her late husband's work on the novel. "He would do it intermittently, in between stuff, and he got a fair distance but he didn't finish it."
For Kraus, completing a story started by George A. Romero was "beyond something I'd ever dreamt," with the author adding, "George meant everything to me growing up, so of course I said yes," when asked by Desrocher-Romero and George's manager, Chris Roe, to finish the book.
Although Romero had completed a large portion of the book, Kraus says that they later discovered around a hundred pages from an earlier version, as well as a short story told from the point of view of a zombie. "[That] was really valuable to get a sense of the real zombie rules," explains Kraus. "The book does have. for the first time. a real zombie point of view kind of character."
In addition to things like a zombie point of view, the book also touches on other ideas that Romero never got to explore in his six Dead movies, such as zombie animals.
"I did a lot of research into George's ideas, deleted scenes, things he cut out of films, and it showed me how interested he was in exploring the idea of zombie animals," says Kraus. "Once I sort of figured that out, the idea of animals led directly to the grander idea that guides the book: we always call it the zombie plague, but that's wrong. Humans are the plague, and zombies are the antibodies sent to Earth to wipe out the human race and save the planet."
Desrocher-Romero and Kraus also emphasize that The Living Dead, in keeping with Romero's films, features a diverse cast led by a Black woman and a young Muslim girl, while touching on issues like racism, intolerance, and the fraying of the social compact — topics that are perhaps even more timely now that we are living in the kind of pandemic Romero might have imagined in his work.
"His point of view was that we should have sorted all this out already, and we haven't," says Desrocher-Romero. "That's why he had a pessimistic point of view, because he kept thinking, 'Jesus, we're not getting it.' And he'd hammer it — he was subtle about it, he wasn't in your face about it, but the way he wrote, he kept hammering the point that we needed to stick together, and yet we couldn't do that somehow."
Both Kraus and Desrocher-Romero think that the current state of world and U.S. affairs — rampant disease, civil unrest, political strife — were things that Romero predicted in his work. "We're seeing a lot of scenes that seem plucked right from George's movies," says Kraus, with Desrocher-Romero interjecting, "We're definitely living in his head right now!"
To which Kraus adds grimly, "And he wouldn't have wished that upon anyone."
The Living Dead will be available on Aug. 4.
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