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Thursday, August 24, 2023

Throwback Thursday - Return of the Living Dead by John Russo

note: I wrote this for my old website about a decade ago. Unlike many of my other Throwback Thursday posts I did go back and polish this one up a bit. The opinion didn’t change at all I just clarified what I was saying better.

Like I mentioned in my Night of the Living Dead review this is the second Russo novel to be republished recently in a large volume called Undead. Just to avoid confusion this book has nothing in common with the movie Return of the Living Dead. I mean the filmmakers started with Russo’s story, but took it a totally different direction completely rewriting the plot. Other than a character named Bert they are completely different.

The story picks up ten years after Night of the Living Dead. Apparently that rising of undead was brought under control and the dead just stopped coming back as quickly and mysteriously as they started to. The action takes place in the same county and follows Sheriff McClelland (from the movie) along with several other characters. These include a farmer named Bert and his three daughters, a couple of state highway patrolmen, and a group of looters. Over the period of one night they all have to deal with the walking dead as well as the brutality of man against his fellow man. 

There is an interesting germ of a story here. The looters holding everyone hostage and killing as they please was an interesting twist on zombie fiction. Remember this book was written in nineteen seventy seven so it is early in the rebirth of the zombie as monster and again focused on the humans are the real threat. Many of the characters were sort of interesting and could have been very memorable. Unfortunately, Russo doesn’t develop either the characters or story to take advantage of it. Instead we get a rehashing of Night of the Living Dead, literally. There are several chapters that are the same news reports from his novelization of Night of the Living Dead. And I do mean word for word… Then instead of fleshing out (pun not intended) the characters he has already created he just introduces more so that they can be victimized. It all feels like a missed opportunity to add to the world in which this story takes place.  

I will point out that I did get interested in Bert and his daughters’ story. They have a rocky relationship and don’t get along. But instead of running with that human element he kills Bert off and has the looters show up. Okay cool then make the story about that. Nope they leave and we pick up the story of the highway patrolmen trying to survive. About the time that this gets interesting he kills one of them off, introduces another family of oddballs (that also have potential). This continues until he has killed off most of them without really getting us engaged or caring about who lives and who dies. This sort of lazy attempts at story telling is a common theme in much of Russo’s work and after having read this novelization I can see by Dan O’Bannon tossed it in the trash for the new story that became the Return of the Living Dead movie. Thank goodness he did.

Back to the book though. Zombie fiction that focuses on setting up characters to knock them off is boring. What makes a movie like Night of the Living Dead, or a book like Reign of the Dead good is that they take the time to establish characters that the audience/reader likes and will root for. That makes the dying and living all the more engrossing. Just like every other type of fiction the reader needs to care about the characters for the story to work. I didn’t and because of that I simply didn’t care for this book. While I did enjoy his novelization of Night of the Living Dead I have to say that this one is a pass for me. Even for Romero completists this will be a disappointment as it doesn’t feel like it fits with the franchise.


© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer

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