In 1968 zombies rose from their graves and the world fell in love with Night of the Living Dead, now, go back to that time again with a comic book series that takes place right before the events of the film and gives a little bit more story about the people and places seen or at least discussed in the movie. Volume One collects issues one through eight.
I’ve always wanted to know more about the events leading up to the start of Night of the Living Dead, but not for the reasons you might think. I just wanted to know what kind of traumatic situations everyone had been in previously that scarred them so much they were almost numb to Barbara screaming like a Banshee the whole fucking movie. I would have thrown her outside in about five minutes flat, let the undead deal with her screaming. I wouldn’t have even bothered eating her, just flung the door open, given her a little push, and waited until the zombies massing outside shut her up for good. You’d think eating her myself would have been the quicker option, but there’s no way I’d have an appetite after listening to that woman’s screeching, even newborns scream less than Barbara did. You can think me cruel all you want but in the same set of circumstances you’d do it too. I’d think you’d want to do it more than I would, myself not having to worry about being eaten by the undead. If they break in because one person couldn’t shut the hell up, I can simply step aside and let the zombies wander past me to the more tender morsels hiding within the house. You don’t have that option, the undead break inside and you’re either zombie chow or a future member of zombie kind. They might just leave you alone if everyone were to stay hidden, but staying hidden is going to be a problem when someone won’t stop screaming like a maniac. I would just want her gone because her screaming was beyond an annoyance, it was headache inducing while watching Night of the Living Dead so I can only imagine what it would be like actually being in a room with her, but for you it would be a matter of survival. Not to mention the necessity of using aspirin for things more serious than a headache caused by a panicked woman who can’t seem to shut the hell up. Then again, I’d much rather deal with the undead than a woman whose constant screaming is so annoying it almost ruins what is otherwise an amazing movie, so maybe I’m just kind of an asshole. I’d accept that.
Volume One in the Night of the Living Dead comic book series starts at the very beginning of the zombie apocalypse, taking place just before the events depicted during the film in 1968 and containing eight issues with each issue being presented as a different chapter in the overall story, some linking directly with the film, others functioning as a standalone. Chapters One, Six, and Eight have very little to do with the film other than the fact that they contain zombies, though Chapters One and Six do take place in or near the same rural Pennsylvania town as the film. Chapter One deals with three people whose party in the woods is interrupted by a small horde of zombies, their origin unknown, and Chapter Six takes place at a drive in theatre where the undead attack the attendees to swell their ranks. Chapter Eight is the only one that doesn’t really seem to have much to do with Night of the Living Dead, it taking place during a zombie outbreak in New York that seems to occur concurrently with what’s happening in Pennsylvania. Unless I’m missing something, the one connection Chapter Eight had with the movie is a comment from a film producer about making zombie films the next big thing. The main meat of the story is Chapters Two, Three, Four, and, to a lesser extent, Chapter Seven. Two through Four begin at a very familiar looking farmhouse, the very same one that will soon shelter the group trying to survive the zombie uprising in Night of the Living Dead. Here Christine is picked up by her boyfriend Don, the pair working at the diner Ben mentions when he first makes it to the farmhouse. While both of them begin their shifts, a bus carrying several passengers back from Atlantic City crashes into an oncoming eighteen wheeler, killing everyone on board, but they don’t stay dead for very long, reanimating and making their way towards the very same diner where Christine and Don work, the same one where fan favorite Ben is trying to peacefully enjoy a cup of coffee. As more and more zombie show up and lay siege to the diner, the group inside will either have to work together or let sixties racism tear them apart. Chapter Seven occurs not long after the end of Four, continuing events from where they ended with a couple of the newly established characters. I know I’m being a bit vague, but I don’t want to give too much away. My favorite chapter by far was Chapter Five, which gave the complete backstory of someone who didn’t have much of a part, Karen Cooper, the infected daughter of Harry and Helen Cooper that spent most of the movie dying on a table before reanimating and zombifying her parents. Her story is completely fleshed out, and it is a thing of beauty, turning what was a minor, forgettable character into something spectacular, going through everything from her early life through how she became a zombie, and even a bit of what happened afterward. Her story is narrated from her thoughts, the thoughts of a confused little girl slowly dying on a table and remembering her life as it slips away.
I’ve seen a lot of Night of the Living Dead tie ins over the years, well, let’s just call them what they really are for the most part, Night of the Living Dead rips offs seeking to exploit the fact that the original movie never got its copyright taken care of, thus letting a bunch of asshats suck at the tit that is Romero, and considering how saggy those things have to be now, that’s a really gross thought. Everything from the numerous movies using Night of the Living Dead in the title, sometimes adding a “3D” in there as if that makes it special, to absolutely insulting pieces of garbage like Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated, Night of the Living Dead 3D, or Mimesis: Night of the Living Dead. Nearly all of them have been awful, awful movies whose creators deserve a swift kick in the jaw for putting a viewer through the kind of atrocious waste they’ve designed, most of the time for a quick buck, other times from some misguided sense of gratitude for the original film. I say misguided because if they really wanted to honor a movie they hold so dear, they wouldn’t make awful versions of it. Thankfully, I finally have an actual tie in to Night of the Living Dead that I can enjoy, one that is neither a remake as is the 90’s version or a satire like Return of the Living Dead. Both of which I enjoyed immensely, don’t get me wrong, the remake is better in many ways than the original, and the Return of the Living Dead series is great up to part 3, but neither one adds much to the very first Romero zombie flick, minus Return’s use of it as a government distraction to hide an actual undead outbreak. This comic book adds quite a lot to the film though, expanding on a world that hadn’t yet been overrun by zombies but was soon to face a dawn, a day, and a land of the dead.
The stories were perfectly crafted to work within the beginnings of the zombie apocalypse Romero was creating with his first zombie film, showing the world just starting to slip into chaos as the undead rose to consume the living. I wasn’t sure how the standalone stories would work, myself not thinking that they would contribute much, but they actually contributed quite a bit more than I thought they would by letting us see that things weren’t as isolated as we might have otherwise believed. Sure, we heard news reports about the dead rising all over the world, but all we saw was a small group trying to survive the night, now we get to see just how far the zombie menace is spreading for ourselves. We see them not only in different parts of town, like the woodland party area or the drive in, giving the reader the impression that while the group in Night of the Living Dead is fighting for their own lives, people around town are doing the same, but we see them all the way in New York as well, proving that the undead are rapidly becoming a problem all over. In fact, I think the New York story might be the most important chapter of the whole collection since it gives us a clear idea of how the undead problem might have gotten so out of control, to the point that by Dawn of the Dead there is no hope of saving the human race. That’s not to say the New York chapter was my favorite part of Volume One, I just think it was the most important overall since it gave scale to the outbreak. I already mentioned my favorite which was Karen’s story, it was simply amazingly well written and gave a depth to her character that I would have never seen coming. Fleshing out a minor character so completely goes to show how much talent went to into creating this. The team up of comic writer and illustrator Mike Wolfer, known for his work on Lady Death, Widow, and Gravel, as well as adapting Friday the 13th and Godzilla comics, and John Russo who helped to create the original Night of the Living Dead, is a major part of why this came out as great as it did. Wolfer’s background in creating very dark storylines was coupled with some very talented artists to create stunning illustrations that don’t mind leaning towards a more adult orientation, while Russo was able to come up with an arc that greatly improved upon his earlier creation with Romero. The result is an amazing addition to Romero’s Dead universe that not only gives the reader a look at what happened in the farmhouse before Barbara, Ben, and the group hiding in the basement showed up, but a first look at what happened to Ben in the diner before he made his way to the farmhouse, and introduces us more formally to Karen, Sherriff McClelland, and the cemetery zombie played by S. William Hinzman.
There was only one problem I had with the comic book, nothing that changes my feelings about how remarkable it was, but a minor complaint concerning the zombies, how unnaturally strong they are and how smart they seem. Throughout the comic zombies will take off jaws, rip out throats with a single swipe, and cave heads in with their bare hands. I didn’t see why death would make them so much stronger than they were in life. Then there was the intelligence they showed when it came to their ability to utilize weapons, using a pipe to smash skulls, bricks to break windows, stones to defend themselves, and knives to cut up humans. I know where it came from considering Russo’s work with the film. In 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, there is an occasional zombie that will use weapons when it has to, I was just as annoyed with it then as I am now.
My admittedly minor complaint aside, this is a must have for any fan of the original movie. It will improve not only your viewing experience for the film but your comic book shelf as well.
The Undead Review
Written By: Mike Wolfer and John Russo
Artwork By: Sebastian Fiumara, Edison George, Ryan Waterhouse, Luis Czerniawksi, and Fabio Jansen
Published By: Avatar Press
Rotten Heads: Four and a Half Heads Out of Five