In “The Living Dead,” a new novel, the late George A. Romero explores the bigger world of the mayhem he begat in his 1969 film, “Night of the Living Dead.”
But Romero — who died of cancer in 2017 — did not finish the book. Chicago author Daniel Kraus picked up the threads of his partial manuscript and, using the horror auteur’s notes and an unearthed short story, finished “The Living Dead.”
“I was just thinking the other day I should have gotten a little bracelet that said WWGD — What Would George Do?” Kraus said in a phone interview. “Because there were months and months of preparations that were about really getting into George’s head and being able to anticipate his reaction to certain plot elements.”
Kraus was a “Living Dead” fanboy from childhood, and his reverence for the late filmmaker is apparent. Yet this is his book as much as Romero’s.
“This is a Romero-Kraus book and there is no way around that. He didn’t write enough that I wouldn’t have to put a lot of myself in it.”
Kraus co-authored “The Shape of Water” with Guillermo del Toro, which went on to be an Academy Award best picture winner. He has two more works coming out in September: “They Threw Us Away,” “the darkest teddy bear story of all time,” and a graphic novel, “The Autumnal.”
“The Living Dead” opens with a harrowing scene in a morgue, where suddenly-awakened bodies in zippered bags inch their way blindly across the cold floor like big worms. The assistant coroner is Luis, which happens to be Suzanne DeRocher-Romero’s pet name for her husband.
The Macmillan Publishers book reboots the zombie uprising to Day 1 in a contemporary setting. Chronologically, the book’s “first act” could be followed by Romero’s six “Living Dead” films, which would then be followed by the rest of the book. It spans about 15 years. Local places that Romero made famous in “Living Dead” movies, including Evans City and Monroeville Mall, “pop up along the way,” Kraus said.
Romero did not write the first half of a book and set it aside. His chapters and musings are scattered throughout.
“Cutting anything was agony-inducing. But there were a few sequences that once we put together the original manuscript, the newly discovered pages, the story … there were a few that just did not fit,” Kraus said. “Cutting those out hurt, and some (changes) I really liked.”
One of the original inspirations for the manuscript was a Romero short story told from the viewpoint of a zombie. With DesRocher-Romero’s help, Kraus was able to track it down to Verona actor/filmmaker Christian Stavrakis.
Kraus, who recently wore a black “Everybody loves Pittsburgh” T-shirt during a Comic-Con virtual panel, said he believes his co-author enjoyed the freedom of writing a novel vs. a screenplay.
“For the first time in his life, he could stop worrying about budget … and producers who say ‘We can’t shoot this.’”
He admitted that some ideas were so wild, they didn’t make the cut.
“There was just a bananas scene that I loved — essentially a zombie being attacked by hippopotamuses — and that was only part of that crazy scene. He was just having a ball with this thing.”
Romero was celebrated for making horror films that represented the (often awful) human condition. Even as a child, Kraus said he realized there was more on screen than met the eye.
“I think zombies are an idea kids can wrap their heads around easier. Especially ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ the idea of hope, that there is a safe space. … But as I got a little older, I began to understand George’s real message, which is, ‘No, the real danger is inside. The real danger is we aren’t going to work together to get past what should be a controllable adversity.’”
Sounds like a fable for the pandemic age.
And here’s a surprise: By the end of the book, readers will finally know how it all turns out.
“I think my interpretation of George’s work on this is, he wanted to make this a conversation-stopper in a way to bookend what he started 50 years before,” Kraus said.
“So to be a part of that, after growing up on his work, is an unbelievable honor.”