For years I've loved the zombie trope created by George Romero. As I've mentioned before, his creation of the shambling undead incorporate and encompass just about every fear and phobia you could name. The possibilities for themes both covert and overt are endless. This is one reason that I felt I had to try my hand at penning a zombie novel.
So, I want to do a list. Everyone seems to like compiling lists. Lists of bests, worsts, must-haves, you-name-it. The following here is a simple list of the best uses of the zombie in various forms of art. This is by no means a complete list, but is a compilation of the creations that spring to mind and which were instrumental in my own development as a writer, and as a creator of the zombie novel, THE LIVING END.
Top of the Heap: This one is easy. The original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD directed by George A. Romero, screenplay by Romero and John Russo, a variation on a theme by Richard Matheson. This movie is the masterpiece of claustrophobia and paranoia. Romero never made it a secret that this film was an allegory based on the Richard Matheson novel I AM LEGEND. To this day, the original NIGHT is still the best adaptation of Matheson's seminal themes.
Second: The original DAWN OF THE DEAD film by George Romero. In this film we see for the first time the zombie utilized as the instrument of apocalypse. It was as brilliant a move as the original concept Romero revealed in the 1968 film. The underlying commentary of consumerism has not been lost on the audience over the intervening years. If there's a movie with a more kinetic and frantic opening, I've not encountered it.
Third: Richard Matheson's novel, I AM LEGEND. Yeah, I know. It's vampires and not zombies. But it might as well be zombies, the way Matheson portrays the pathetic and ravaged infected who have surrounded the last living man on Earth. I encountered this novel when I was fifteen years old and the first line grabbed me. I was hooked. It's a pity that no one has ever done the novel justice as a film. Until then, we have Romero's first zombie movie, and that's good enough.
Fourth: Len Barnhart's indie novel, REIGN OF THE DEAD. I stumbled upon this novel after meeting Len Barnhart either at a convention or online. I honestly can't recall how I first found the book. But once I'd found it, I was really happy that I had. When Mr. Barnhart published REIGN OF THE DEAD there had been virtually no other zombie novels. To my knowledge, only Phil Nutman's WET WORK and the various novelizations of Romero zombie movies preceded it. In those days, who the heck would publish a novel about flesh-eating zombies? Well, apparently, nearly no one. Len Barnhart pretty much started the zombie wave and created a whole new market for apocalyptic fiction about the undead overwhelming the living. The book was great when it came out and it's still great now.
Fifth: THE WALKING DEAD. Robert Kirkman wasn't the first to bring zombies to comics, but he was the first to do it effectively. There had been some notable attempts to do comic book zombies; however, Kirkman blew the others away with something the rest of them lacked: characterization. With THE WALKING DEAD you had finally found a continuing series that had people in it who were not bland cutouts. I first heard about the title when I found myself talking to fans of the comic who didn't normally even read comics! They were following the series for the simple reason that it was so well written and that the situations seemed true to them, despite the fantastic setting. For comics, zombie fiction doesn't get any better.
Sixth: WET WORK by Phil Nutman. Wet Work is a term that describes the task of killing people, principally by those who work as assassins for various governments. The world of WET WORK begins in just such a situation as a zombie plague begins to envelope the Earth. This was another what-the-heck-is-going-on-here? experience. When Nutman published this book as a mass market paperback it was unique: a zombie novel. It actually preceded REIGN OF THE DEAD and it had zombie fandom to itself for a very long time. Why Nutman never followed it up with another similar novel is a mystery. I kept waiting for another, but it never came. The book is out again in a deluxe format, and I recommend it.
Seventh: THE WALKING DEAD television series. It's not quite the series I was expecting, but it's pretty darned good, so far. If you haven't seen it, go rent the DVD or buy a set. If you're a zombie fan, you'll like it. If you enjoy drama in general, you'll probably still get a kick out of it.
Well, as the seventh-born of a seventh-born of a seventh-born, I'll leave it at that lucky number. For now. In the meantime, you can buy my own zombie novel THE LIVING END in both trade paperback and Kindle.
"This guy James Robert Smith can write! Not since Philip K. Dick have I read an author who so convincingly paints the social milieu of his story's world. From the very first page I felt eerily and alarmingly at home in James Robert Smith s The Living End. Every detail is masterfully rendered on the page. Plus, he gives us zombies. And dogs! I loved The Living End. Bravo, James Robert Smith! Your book blew me away." - Joe McKinney, author of Dead City and Apocalypse of the Dead