As the godfather of the modern zombie, it’s hard to understate the impact George Romero has had on the genre. He’s been cranking out zombie movies since 1968’s Night of the Living Dead—six in all, including his most recent outing, Survival of the Dead in 2010. As World War Z author Max Brooks has said, “It’s Romero’s world, and we’re all just living in it.”
However, the genre might trace one of its more problematic legacies back to Romero, too. Zombie lit is typically schlocky and shocky, with little of the artistic literary value that, say, the vampire genre has sometimes achieved. Romero set a low bar for low-brow writing with his 1978 novel Dawn of the Dead, an adaptation (with writer Susanna Sparrow) of his second zombie film.
However, his novel lumbers like one of the walking dead.
I admit right up front that it might be a mistake for a reader to come to a zombie novel with any sorts of literary expectations at all. Undead bodies eating the flesh of the living doesn’t necessarily sound like a concept that lends itself to literary pretention. I only give the problem consideration at all because a few weeks ago, Matt Mogk, director of the Zombie Research Society and author of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Zombies, told me one of his fondest wishes is for the zombie genre to achieve a level of respectability.
In that context, I have to think Dawn of the Dead made the row a lot more difficult to hoe.
The book is almost all plot, and I suspect that’s what zombie fans want. However, high-octane melodrama substitutes for suspense. In the middle of the action, for instance, the text jumps back and forth between multiple characters with few or no transitions beyond a paragraph break. In a film, such jump cuts might add to the tension, but on the page, it gets schizophrenic.
The writing also feels melodramatic because of the abundance of adjectives and adverbs, which have overrun Dawn the way zombies have overrun the world. People speak tersely and glare angrily, and sounds jar abruptly. Romero also scatters exclamation points like shotgun pellets: “Those weren’t the quick steps of Steve or the other two outside, those were the lumbering, clumsy actions of one of the living dead!” “He didn’t think he could have lasted one minute in that cab with those creatures without puking his brains out!” “What a phony!”
Attempts at characterization are clumsy at best. A hardened SWAT officer, Peter, for instance, blocks out the trauma of the zombie apocalypse by remaining aloof. “He had done that when his grandmother was dying,” Romero writes, 188 pages into the novel, mentioning grandma for the first time.
The overall effect is a novel that often reads like it was written by a fifteen-year-old boy with a really great idea and ham-fisted writing skills—but that’s also what has made the book such a huge hit among fanboys of all ages when it was published shortly after the movie’s release in 1978. The novel is a virtual masterclass in how not to write, yet it’s the novel every zombie fanboy wishes they’d written, so it sold a ton of copies and hit the bestseller list. Last November, the book was reissued.
Thematically, the novel reinforces a theme that appears in all of Romero’s zombie work: the zombies aren’t the real threat; other people are. “It was a madhouse out there…people are crazy…if they’d just organize,” one character laments. “It’s total confusion. I don’t believe it’s gotten this bad. I don’t believe they can handle it.”
Another commonality among Romero’s zombie works, says Daniel Dressner in Theories of International Politics and Zombies, is the idea that zombies are “created by an infection present in the environment, not spread from zombie to human. Anyone who dies for any reason will acquire it.” This principle guides the world of The Walking Dead, for instance, but in most other cases, a zombie bite is necessary for spreading the infection. In Dawn, for instance, both major characters who turn do so after zombie bites have killed them.
But Romero bucks the rest of the genre in at least one major respect, Dressner points out:
It is interesting to note that Romero’s explanations have trended in the opposite direction from the rest of zombie literature. In general, the genre has moved toward scientific and pseudoscientific explanations involving viruses, prions, and toxins. In his films, however, Romero has drifted from the radiation backstory of Night of the Living Dead (1968) to a more supernatural explanation.
“We’ve been punished by the Creator,” one character says in the movies Day of the Dead. “He visited a curse on us, so we might get a look at what Hell was like.” In the novel Dawn of the Dead, a character says something similar: “When There’s No More Room in Hell, the Dead Will Walk the Earth.”
Dawn offers a more comprehensive vision of hell than what Romero could offer in his smaller-budget Night of the Living Dead. There’s some social commentary married to that vision, too. Dawn takes place mostly in a suburban shopping mall; even in death, the undead are drawn there for little apparent reason.
If Night was the work of a genius, Dawn is the novel of a hack—and that might be okay. Zombies don’t have slick style and they sure as hell aren’t pretty. Romero’s novel doesn’t have to be, either.