Well, for the penultimate novel in this month’s horror marathon, I thought that I’d read a zombie novel. In particular, I thought that I’d re-read George A.Romero & Susanna Sparrow’s 1978 novelisation of Romero’s classic zombie movie “Dawn Of The Dead”.
Although I first saw the film and read this novelisation during my mid-teens (after finding a copy for just 40p in a charity shop/second-hand bookshop), I couldn’t really remember that much about either thing. So, it seemed like the perfect time to take another look at the book.
Anyway, let’s take a look at “Dawn Of The Dead”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The story begins in Philadelphia, in the studios of W-GON TV during a zombie apocalypse. Whilst debates about the apocalypse rage on air, assistant manager Francine Parker tries to get an updated list of rescue stations posted on air against the wishes of her boss. After several arguments break out and everything starts to fall into chaos, Francine’s boyfriend Steve tells her about a plan to use the traffic helicopter to escape.
Meanwhile, Steve’s friend Roger is waiting outside of an apartment block. Roger is a member of a S.W.A.T team, aided by the military, who want to evacuate the residents of the tower to a rescue station. The people in the tower don’t want to leave, and it isn’t long before a gunfight breaks out between them and the authorities. In addition to this, many of the tower’s dead also begin to rise from the grave as flesh-eating zombies.
During the violent chaos, a trooper called Peter saves Roger’s life and – realising that the battle isn’t going well – Roger tells Peter about Steve’s plan to steal a helicopter and get the hell out of town. So, both men decide to go AWOL….
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it isn’t perfect, it’s a reasonably compelling zombie thriller that is still fairly readable. In short, it’s a book that – whilst still fairly ok – seemed much more impressive when I was a teenager.
In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they consist of the gory horror and post-apocalyptic horror that you would expect from a zombie story, in addition to many moments of suspenseful horror, claustrophobic horror and character-based horror too.
Although the novel is slightly more gruesome than what I remember of the film, the novel’s moments of gory horror are probably more comparable to other 70s horror novels, like James Herbert’s “The Rats“, than the ultra-gruesome splatterpunk fiction of the 1980s.
Surprisingly, the main focus of the novel’s is more on suspense and post-apocalyptic chaos. These elements works really well, with the survivors spending most of the novel in peril from either zombies, environmental factors or other survivors. This story also has a really claustrophobic atmosphere that helps to add a lot of tension to the story.
Likewise, one interesting thing about the novel’s bleak post-apocalyptic settings is that, for the most part, the power grid is still working – giving the story’s iconic shopping centre a really eerie atmosphere (eg: since it seems both normal and post-apocalyptic at the same time).
In addition to this, the fact that the electricity is somehow still on also allows the characters to find radio and TV reports about the apocalypse, which help to add a sense of scale to the story whilst also adding to the desolate atmosphere too (since most of the TV broadcasts are debates/arguments about how to deal with the zombie plague).
In terms of the novel’s thriller elements, they work fairly well. Although the characters find themselves in lots of suspenseful situations and/or fast-paced battles, some of these seem more suspenseful than others (due to the writing style). Even so, the novel is still a fairly decent thriller that mixes tense scenes of survival with more action-packed scenes.
Thematically, the novel seems reasonably similar to what I remember of the film. However, the story’s parallels between zombies and consumerism are made a bit more explicit in the novel (with a couple of references to “a consumer society” etc..). The novel also seems to add a few feminist themes to the story too. Some of these moments work fairly well in dramatic terms (eg: Fran’s frustration at not being seen as an equal member of the group), but some are a bit corny (eg: the line “But now was not the time to raise his consciousness” etc…).
In terms of the writing, it is… functional… I guess. Overall, the novel’s third-person narration is the kind of narration you’d expect from a 1970s thriller novel (eg: slightly more formal than a modern one, but still fairly “matter of fact”). But, whilst this novel is fairly readable most of the time, the narration probably isn’t the most well-written that I’ve ever read.
In addition to several noticeable uses of the passive voice, some rather dull/repetitive sentences, weird terminology (eg: rifle bullets are referred to as “shells”), random jumps to other locations (without so much as a line break) and a few sentences that don’t flow that well, some of the novel’s more suspenseful scenes also get so bogged down in descriptions of locks, doors, escalators etc.. that they can become mildly confusing. Even so, this novel is mostly still fairly readable despite some noticeable flaws with the writing.
As for the characters, they’re ok. Whilst there isn’t lots of ultra-deep characterisation, there is enough characterisation to make you care about the characters. Likewise, a lot of the novel’s drama comes from the complicated and terse relationships between the four main characters. A lot of the characterisation is also done in a cinematic way (eg: through dialogue, personalities etc..), although there are obviously a few moments of more traditional novelistic characterisation too.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is interesting. At an efficient 216 pages, this novel could teach modern novels a thing or two about brevity. But, whilst the novel’s pacing is moderately fast throughout, the story is probably at it’s most gripping during the earlier and later parts. Whilst the middle is still fairly compelling, the focus on survival within a single location doesn’t really have the same sensation of motion that the rest of the story does.
As for how this forty-one year old novel has aged, it shows it’s age but hasn’t aged too terribly. For the time it was written, it was probably a fairly progressive novel – even if the way the novel handles this will sometimes seem a bit awkward, earnest and/or dated when read today. Likewise, whilst the writing style and atmosphere of the story are fairly 70s, it’s still fairly readable and the story still remains compelling when read these days.
All in all, whilst this novel is probably best enjoyed when you are an uncritical teenager rather than a more cynical adult, it’s still a fairly compelling and atmospheric zombie thriller. Even though the writing isn’t spectacular, the novel’s horror elements still work reasonably well and there’s a decent amount of suspense too.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and three-quarters.