Zombi (times) 2

*New column, hot out of the toaster. It's about how the specialized, ever-shifting comics terminology threatens to transform our old writings to secret code. But then, at least I can feel like a talented boy detective just reading my old posts. Magic!

*Two strains of zombie fiction, both in the form of simultaneously-released comic books from Avatar, as I pointed out the other day. Let’s have a bit more detail, eh?

Escape of the Living Dead #5 (of 5)

The lineage of this one is pretty easy to track - the seminal Night of the Living Dead appeared in 1968, quite a sight to see. Its stripped-down, high-contrast, dirt-level aesthetic was a model of making limited funds and resources work for a picture, and while its influences can be certainly be traced (most striking to me are the marching doom visual milieu of 1962's similarly low-budget Carnival of Souls, and the visceral, backed-in kick of the latter reels of 1963's The Birds) they all pulled together into something uniquely striking. Maybe it was the futility of it all, the creeping notion that not everything was going to be ok with the world and that our fellow humans were prone to fail us, betray us, devour us. All of the monsters in the film at least used to be people, and some of them still are as the action unfolds.

Thus, social comment arrived via intense horror bloodshed, courtesy of director/co-writer George Romero and co-writer John Russo. The two would eventually split their partnership, with Romero’s subsequent works in the genre standing as ‘official’ sequels, while Russo retained the rights to use the words “living dead” in his own later projects. The original film is thus apparently mentioned as a fictionalization of ‘real’ events in the latter Russo projects, a flourish retained for this just-concluded comics miniseries.

As the story goes, Avatar originally wanted to do a comic based on Russo’s most popular post-Night zombie project, Return of the Living Dead, originally a straight-up horror novel but transformed into a comedy for the 1985 Dan O’Bannon film (and then novelized back to prose by Russo). Rights issues would be a problem, so instead Russo offered up an unfilmed screenplay of his, Escape of the Living Dead. The adaptation to comics script is performed by Avatar regular Mike Wolfer, no stranger to horror with many contributions to Avatar’s Friday the 13th licensed books and the Warren Ellis-written Strange Killings series. The pencils are by Indian talent Dheeraj Verma, also of a few issues of Avatar’s Joe R. Lansdale’s By Bizarre Hands anthology series, with inks by one ‘Lalit.’

And as far as zombie stories under the cover of Night go, it’s ok, if far from outstanding work. Set in 1971, in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, the story mainly follows a young woman, Sally, who has returned to her parents’ home following a divorce. Unfortunately, long-haired Neo-Nazi bikers have also arrived, and accidently blown open a secret military project to isolate the inner workings of zombies, and maybe bottle the stuff. Nobody seems to be totally aware of the purposes behind such experiments (though the local Sheriff has his suspicions: “Send ‘em to ‘Nam...?”), but what’s clear is that the Living Dead are about to, as the title says, Escape.

Needless to say, it’s the living humans that prove to be the most trouble, with the aforementioned bikers taking Sally and others hostage as the zombie plague begins to spread once more. This particular issue wraps the story up, in just about the way you’d expect - good and evil humans alike are picked off by flesh-eaters, heads are torn from shoulders, undead skulls are blown open in loving detail, and the good people band together to make a final stand against the sauntering hordes. It’d have been a bit more exciting if the cover (the regular cover - I believe there’s one variant for each individual zombie) hadn’t blown the climax. It’s also not entirely sturdy from a visual standpoint - Verma’s character art is straightforward, and reasonably attractive, though there’s a definite sameness to some of his designs. I recall in issue #1 some of the bikers could only be distinguished by the colors of their eyes, and Sally’s mother didn’t look more than five or so years older than her daughter (and clearly the younger inherited her mom’s significant bust) - here, the resemblance between Sally’s father and the Sheriff is so pronounced that colorist Andrew Dalhouse apparently got mixed up on page 11, panel 2, and gave the wrong character the wrong hair and shirt color, rendering the flow of dialogue confusing. A certain lack of clarity also extends to some of Verma’s page layouts, the opening struggle in the basement rather poorly staged.

The book does get a bit more interesting, if not more satisfying, through its mix of social forces sloshing around its period action. There’s a decidedly conservative bent to much of it, the notion of long-haired rebels roaring into town, bringing nothing but drugs and violence, literally uncaging an awful plague once thought gone. The stout-hearted forces of small-town order take up arms against both these invaders and the zombies - in the end, Sally even develops an attraction to a nice law enforcement officer. And yet, the plague touches everyone, from cheerleaders to upstanding citizens to hippies - the image of military-minded scientists dragging an undead counterculture type off for more experiments is a loaded one, though also a familiar one to constant viewers of zombie film. Marching hordes and the people who deal with them can mean many different things, though this book doesn’t really seem certain as to what they are right now. Enough to cite the old favorites, and move on.

Warren Ellis’ Blackgas #2 (of 3)

Not that the reasons behind the outbreak even need to be important. Following the release of Romero’s initial sequel, 1978's Dawn of the Dead, a real-life proliferation of zombies followed - a slew of shockers released to make money in the wake of Dawn’s successful Italian arrival (augmented by co-producer Dario Argento’s re-edit, with a new score featuring favored Argento collaborators Goblin). It’d be silly to suggest that some of these films didn’t hew closely to the Romero model, but others drifted off into their own weird zone of dream logic and heavy atmosphere. Not to mention the increasingly intense gore set-pieces, make-up effects utilized to sometimes dire, sometimes stunning ends. Tone was key to these films, larger comment subsumed into dime-store surrealism and a hunger to give increasingly jaded fans what they want.

This miniseries evokes that European model more than anything. As soon as you open the book, you’ll notice that Max Fiumara’s pencils (with ‘ink assist’ by his brother Sebastian) are much more intensively evocative than the straightforward work of Verma. Much of this issue takes place at night, and shadows are thick and heavy, seeping into characters’ eyes and infesting every crevace of their faces. It helps that here the outward signs of zombie infection (ok, ok - it’s one of those zombies-but-not-zombies deals like in 28 Days Later) also involve black eyes and seeping ichor, very much like shadows. Truly, anyone could be infected.

It’s very good that the visuals are this effective, since that’s what this whole issue is riding on, much in the way some spaghetti gut munchers live and die on the power of their environments and gore effects. There’s some juicy ones here - it’s to Fiumara’s credit that a simple matter of damage to the head becomes much more forceful, almost expressionistic in this book (Dalhouse is again behind the hues), the brains and bone shoved right into the reader’s face. Human bodies seem oddly pliable here, a baseball bat to the lips reducing a whole mouth to dripping silly putty. And if that’s not enough, well, let’s just say some of the major gore scenes are quite a mouthful.

The plot, at this point, is simplicity itself: zombies are attacking, and our heroic young couple must find a way off the island they happen to be staying on. As with last issue, Ellis largely dials down his familiar writerly ‘voice,’ opting for a somewhat more natural style of conversation between his characters. His taste for scientific explanations for fantastic events does shine through, as one infected soul does provide a theory as to what’s exactly going on, the effects of zombie infection slowed due to all of the narcotics he’s cranked on. That’s a fun idea, as is Ellis’ handling of the infected souls as barely in control of their basest instincts to eat and reproduce, though still nominally human. I also enjoyed the almost over-the-top handling of the female lead as entirely in control at every moment, always totally ready to kick zombie ass and ask questions later, without even a nod toward postmodernism or genre or whatever.

I think this is a better comic, a better bit of horror. I’ll repeat my warning from last issue’s review, that there’s probably not enough innovation or inspiration here to attract those not already interested in the genre, but as far as the genre itself goes, it’s good. Like the best of the low-reputation b-movie scrapers, it brings a tireless desire to entertain and please to the table, and the chops to back at least that much up, while the other book seems a bit adrift. A bit less hungry, if you will.

And given such a comparison, I’ll side with the hungrier ghouls.