240 pages, St. Martin's Griffin
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
George A. Romero is the undisputed king of zombie movies. Hell, he practically created the genre with 1968's groundbreaking “Night of the Living Dead” - a movie so ahead of its time that, almost fifty years later, it still retains the power to shock. Ten years later, Romero released a sequel to “Night of the Living Dead”. Aptly titled “Dawn of the Dead”, the movie was a nightmarish look at America in the grip of an unexplained zombie outbreak. The film managed to combine B-movie thrills, extreme violence and levels of gore hitherto unseen on the silver screen with biting satire on our consumer-driven society. An instant cult favourite, the film has achieved near-mythic status amongst horror movie aficionados. If you haven't seen this film (and I don't mean Zac Snyder's 2004 “re-imagining”), then I suggest you seek it out at the earliest opportunity.
First released in 1979, the novelisation of the movie was a fairly straightforward adaptation. Nothing was taken out and very little was added that we didn't see on the big screen. “What's the point?” I hear you ask... Well, back in the days before home VCRs, satellite television and the internet, the chances of a youngster getting into a cinema and seeing this legendary movie were pretty slim. The novelisation allowed those unable to get to experience the film on the big screen to enjoy it from the comfort of an armchair (or more likely, underneath the bedcovers with a flashlight). The problem is, as much as the novel tries, it doesn't manage to do justice to the film it is based on.
Celluloid is such an immediate, visceral medium. It moves fast and a good director is able to sweep up his or her audience and take them on a journey in a relatively short space of time. The difficulties of taking a novel and adapting it for the big screen are well known but it seems that the reverse situation is just as challenging. We are more likely to tolerate a one-dimensional supporting character on the big screen. After all, we only have to spend a few hours with them at the most. In a novel, weak characterisation stands out like a fat bloke at a salad bar. It slows a novel down, prevents the reader from being genuinely involved with the character and makes the whole process of reading the book somewhat of a chore. Similarly, an audience might forgive gaps in logic in a fast-moving film but are less likely to do so in a novel that they are expected to invest substantially more time in.
“Dawn of the Dead” isn't a bad story. The novelisation recreates the sombre mood of the original movie and is able to capture the tension of a society on the brink of collapse. The fear and confusion of the populace as the face an enemy they don't understand is also conveyed effectively. The problem comes with the central characters. Romero's “heroes” in any of his films tend to be a difficult bunch. Thrown together by circumstance, they seldom get on with one another. When the bickering starts, the pseudo-family unit breaks down and the selfish, individualistic humans are picked off one by one by the undead hordes. On the screen, it is easy to accept (but not necessarily care for) these characters. We don't learn an awful lot about them and their inevitable deaths are par for the course (this is a zombie movie, after all). In the book, these ambiguous characters are simply dull, as flat and lifeless as the zombies they battle.
On the screen, the zombies are all individuals. Some are men, some are women. Some are young, some are old. Some wear suits, some are dressed in jeans and trainers. At one point, there's even a Hare Krishna zombie. With just a glimpse, we get a picture of who they were before they turned and this cosmopolitan approach In the book, we get a little bit of description for some of the zombies but they are mostly referred to simply as “zombie”. Obviously, the authors did this to avoid breaking the pace of the novel – realistically, you couldn't stop and describe every single one of a zombie horde – but the terror and revulsion one should feel when gazing on the shambling undead is substantially lessened each time you read that word. And you will read that word about a thousand times in this book.
I love “Dawn of the Dead”. It is one of my favourite films and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone, whether they like horror movies or not. It's a shame I can't say the same about the novelisation. It wasn't a crushing disappointment. I enjoyed reading it, but only because I am such a huge fan of the film. It brought nothing new to my enjoyment of the film and not even an introduction by Simon Pegg makes the book worth shelling out ￡7.99 for. Die-hard fans might buy this out of curiosity but everyone else will realise that eight pounds will buy the DVDs of both “Dawn of the Dead” and “Night of the Living Dead” and that's a far sounder investment.
Hereward L.M. Proops