When Harvey at FABPress mailed eatmybrains.com asking if we would be interested in a review copy of Book of the Dead, I would’ve thought the answer would have been pretty predictable, considering the name of our site. Oh, go on then. And then one day, it arrived with that reassuring FABPress stamp of quality on the brown packaging. Nice.
On first impressions, the cover art is instantly recognisable, if a little garish by today’s standards. But we like garish, especially if it involves the artwork for Fulci’s gibberish classic City of the Living Dead with BOOK OF THE DEAD printed at the top, in the classic Dawn of the Dead font. Already, this is Fulci meets Romero – enough to keep deadhead enthusiasts happy the world over then, and that’s before the book is even opened.
The next step, naturally, was to playfully fan through the 320 pages, keeping a keen eye out for a mixture of unfamiliar images as well as more well-known artwork and photographs of crumbly zombie extras. Immediately it is apparent that this is what we want, what we need and thank Christ it’s here at last. This book is worth your hard earned pennies for the reproductions alone and features two extremely comprehensive glossy poster sections as well as liberally illustrated chapters which are so gorgeous that it’s almost an effort to concentrate on the accompanying text.
Author Jamie Russell writes with a straightforward, easy reading style, which is perfect when you want to read every dead word. Kicking off with an overview of zombie film history from a socio-economic perspective and the early 20th century writings of American adventurer William Seabrook (who chronicled his experiences and research in 1920’s Haiti) the first chapters then introduce the theatrical horror productions, becoming ever popular with theatre goers in the West at the start of last century.
Inevitably, this follows on to give an account of the emergence of film horror itself as theatrical offspring, most notably the popularity of cinema legends Karloff and Lugosi, whose major studio work was to be downgraded with the humble trappings of ‘Poverty Row’ horror in the subsequent decade, relying on the likes of Lugosi’s name to bring the punters in, rather than any unconditional promise of something very scary lurking behind the cinema curtains. Then along comes the story of horror saviour Val Lewton with his wonderfully prolific and altogether more atmospheric output during the 40’s with RKO Pictures, the most relevant offering being I Walked With a Zombie.
Russell then skilfully shuffles us through the “transitional period in the zombie movies history” of the 50’s atomic age, paving the way for Romero’s vision with themes of dehumanisation, less obviously portrayed in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Bodysnatchers than it was in say, Jerry Warren’s Teenage Zombies. As we get closer and closer to the man with the big glasses via the advent of more REAL, less forgiving horror like Psycho, Russell takes care not to omit obscurities from 1960’s Mexico, such as the bizarre sounding ‘Santo’ series, while in the US, drive-in theatres were being treated to extremely long titles about incredibly strange creatures who stop living and, well, you know.
While we are only fleetingly treated to talk of the less influential offerings of the period, we can’t expect to drive right past dear old George and, in particular, the weight of his none-more-significant opus, Night of the Living Dead. It is from this point forward that Jamie Russell stops to take a breath to look at the social impact of this brand of on-your-doorstep horror. This is where it all changes, as filmmakers like Bob Clarke / Alan Ormsby, Jeff Lieberman and David Cronenberg embraced Romero’s nihilistic vision while adequately detailed paragraphs are reserved for Spanish director Jorge Grau with his apocalyptic and superbly creepy The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue.
Navigating through the likes of Jean Rollin, De Ossorio’s Blind Dead quartet, the camp visions of Paul Naschy and subsequent porn/horror crossover of the 1970’s, the writer then delves into big glasses territory again with the consumer satire of Dawn of the Dead and its pasta-eating European relative copycats, most notably the maggot master himself, Lucio Fulci. Bringing in the “staggering” range of zombie titles in the wake of Fulci’s flesh eaters, Russell’s next chapters signal the arrival of the 80’s zombie boom, with a ‘the more influential / successful it is, the more I’ll talk about it’ approach. Here, he focuses on the brain eating slapstick of Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead, the gore and gags craziness of Stuart Gordon’s Reanimator and the outstanding success of Peter Jackson’s grue-drenched Braindead, right through to the insightful section on the troubled production of Tom Savini’s NOTLD remake in 1990.
In the hilariously entitled sub-chapter, ‘Poverty Row for the MTV Generation (or, Children Shouldn’t Play with Camcorders)’ we are treated to the tireless accounts of some truly awful SOV (shot on video) “crud” from the 90’s like Lord of the Dead and Zombie Campout. When Russell starts talking about films that can be called “the bastard offspring of spaghetti horrors like Zombie Flesh Eaters and Zombie Creeping Flesh”, you just know you’re in trouble. But we love it. This is what it’s all about, folks. His loving description of 90’s Poverty Row horror short fallings makes us want to get our hands on this stuff even more, and care is taken to single out films in this bargain basement category which don’t necessarily disappoint as much as they should, e.g. Scooter McCrae’s The Shatter Dead.
The final chapters introduce the “love and death” significance of Michael Soavi’s gorgeous Dellamorte Dellamore (with some fantastically insightful background information), the influence of the Resident Evil video game and consequential Japanese zombie onslaught of Junk, Versus, Wild Zero (“disposable trash” – tch!) along with mention of intriguingly low-key efforts like the not-as-good-as-it-sounds Zombie Vs. Ninja. In the end though, in accordance with the good timing of Book of the Dead, Russell ends with the current mainstream cycle of the zombie film, with 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, the Dawn remake, and, last but not least, Land of the Dead.
Following its main chapter section is an exhaustive 78-page Zombie Filmography, featuring hoards of films you will probably never have even heard of. What would’ve made this filmography even better is an indication of title availability, but even without this, Book of the Dead will leave most deadheads very happy indeed, and probably heading straight for eBay or one of the many obscure horror DVD-r ordering sites online in an effort to secure themselves a host of rubbish zombie discs. Russell does not come across as overly opinionated, but occasionally stabs ‘for’ and ‘against’ in a helpful, unobtrusive, guiding manner.
This is the book that zombie fans have been waiting for, and where it succeeds in overtaking the Dark Side publication Zombie (which, don't get m wrong, still rocks), is in its linear, consistent style. Whereas Zombie approaches the subject through a series of essays on various aspects and impassioned experiences of the genre, Russell’s book is a more conventional affair that flows effortlessly. Looks like you really can judge a book by its cover. A mere throwaway mention to Night of the Creeps, though? Pah!
Book of the Dead runs to a thumping great total of 320 pages - which includes over 200 b+w images and 130 amazing colour illustrations.
To order your copy, visit the FAB Press website and click the Book of the Dead link on the home page.
Retail price is £19.99, but if you order through the FAB Press website, you will get a further £6 off the RRP price.
Book of the Dead Contents:
Introduction. Dead Men Walking
Chapter One. Caribbean Terrors
* Tracking the Walking Dead
* The Origins of the Zombie
* The Zombie in the West
Chapter Two. The Zombie Goes to Hollywood
* Horror Hits the Stage
* Cultural Anxieties: Haiti, the Depression and Race
* The Zombies Are Revolting
Chapter Three. Down and Out on Poverty Row
* Horror Comedy on Black Island
* The Poverty Row Years
* Val Lewton: A Touch of Class
Chapter Four. Atomic Interlude
* Sci-Fi Horrors
* Voodoo's Last Gasps
* The Mass Destruction of Men's Minds
Chapter Five. Bringing It All Back Home
* Keeping It in the Family
* Stiff Upper Lips and the Walking Dead
* South of the Border
* Back on American Soil: Night of the Living Dead
Chapter Six. Dawn of the Dead
* Romero's Children
* The Ghouls Can't Help It
* Destructive Tendencies
* Sex, Death and Amando de Ossorio's Templars
* By the Dawn's Early Light
Chapter Seven. Splatter Horror
* The Italians Are Coming!
* The Apocalypse of Narrative: Fulci's Zombie Trilogy
* The Return to the Caribbean
* Splatter House of Horrors
Chapter Eight. Twilight of the Dead
* Night of the Living Dead Redux
* Poverty Row for the MTV Generation (Or, Children Shouldn't Play with Camcorders)
* Of Death, Of Love: An Interlude
* The Resident Evil Effect
* Big-Budget Ghouls
* Rebirth of the Dead
Afterword. Something To Do With Death
Chapter Nine. Zombie Filmography
* A comprehensive 80-page A-Z guide to every significant zombie movie ever made.