Novelist Daniel Kraus only met his hero George Romero once, at a horror convention circa 2006. Eleven years later, the man who directed Night of the Living Dead, creating the zombie-movie genre as we know it, died of lung cancer. A month after his death, Kraus set out to complete Romero’s final project: his long-gestating debut novel, The Living Dead.
There’s something oddly apt about George Romero completing a novel (and a zombie novel, no less) from beyond the grave. It’s even more fitting that the work would be posthumously completed by Kraus, a writer and documentary filmmaker who’s been obsessed with Romero’s zombie oeuvre since his mother showed him Night of the Living Dead when he was 6. “They’re my Star Wars,” Kraus says, in a phone interview from his Chicago home.
Kraus is the author of several popular young-adult fantasy novels, including Rotters, the story of a teenage grave-robber, and two volumes of The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, the story of a dead kid who gets resurrected. Kraus is also used to collaborating with creators who have strong personal styles, having previously co-written the book versions of Trollhunters and The Shape of Water with their creator, Guillermo del Toro.
But The Living Dead was a different kind of project for Kraus, because he had to not just work with someone else’s ideas, but had to interpret his intentions. As he explains in an author’s note at the end of the book, Kraus’ one encounter with Romero came courtesy of the filmmaker’s manager, Chris Roe, who happened to have grown up with Kraus in Fairfield, Iowa. After Romero died, Roe asked Kraus if he could do something with the big chunk of The Living Dead Romero left behind, which was only “about a third” of what would become the final manuscript.
While researching Romero’s history as a prose writer, Kraus also discovered two chapters from an earlier attempt at a zombie novel that Romero briefly tried to serialize online in 2000. He found a short story too, written from a zombie’s point of view. And then about halfway through the writing process, Roe sent Kraus an old letter from Romero, outlining some general ideas for the book. All told, Kraus estimates that about half of the text in the final version of The Living Dead was either directly written or at least plotted by Romero.
The final version of The Living Dead is big — nearly 700 pages long — and audacious. The story begins at the start of a zombie plague, capturing the hectic early days of the apocalypse from the perspectives of a handful of very different human characters: a news anchor, a trailer-park teen, a medical examiner’s assistant, a Navy helmsman, a low-level bureaucrat, and others. Later, the story jumps ahead to reckon with the devastating aftermath of the initial outbreak. Throughout, the authors adopt varying stylistic approaches, shifting from broad overviews to intense individual moments of terror as they chart the saga of modern civilization’s death and tentative rebirth.
What the author’s note doesn’t really get into are the challenges of fitting Kraus’ style together with Romero’s — especially given that the material Kraus had to work with was so fragmentary. “It would’ve been much easier if he had written half the book and stopped, you know?” Kraus says. “That’s a certain kind of challenge. But I had all these different islands that he had created, and I had to build bridges between them.”
Kraus’ solution? Try to think like Romero. As he explains, “I was really trying to get into his head and find ways to answer questions creatively that he didn’t leave the answers to.”
That process included rewatching Romero’s six zombie films (from 1968’s Night of the Living Dead to 2009’s Survival of the Dead) and trying to map out some kind of continuity between all of them and the book. Kraus also absorbed every Romero interview he could find, and talked a lot with his widow Suzanne.
Most importantly, he watched the movies Romero loved most — which, by and large, weren’t horror films. He favored classic cinema, directed by the likes of John Ford and Michael Powell. Kraus consumed what Romero consumed, to try to understand why Romero had created the characters and scenarios he did in The Living Dead, and where he might’ve taken them if he’d lived.
“To make it flow really required just tons of thinking,” Kraus says. “I’ve never spent so much time just sitting at a desk and thinking. Months of research went into the book before I even started.”
Part of the process involved reckoning with why Romero was writing a novel in the first place. As a Romero super-fan, Kraus was aware of the long list of movies the director had been unable to get made, and he knew about the troubles he’d had getting the money to realize his vision even on presumably bankable zombie films like Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead. In prose, Romero could tell any story he wanted to tell, without worrying about the budget.
As to why Romero decided to return to zombies in the first place, Kraus suggests, “I think he still understood that’s what people wanted from him. He understood that if he wanted to make a splash in fiction, his first book should probably be in this universe he’d pioneered. Plus, he had material ready. He had a backlog of ideas and visions for a much bigger zombie story. His first attempt at writing something like this happened in 2000, and then 10 years later, he started trying to do it again. I think that shows his determination to try to get it done.”
After spending so much time thinking, Kraus found the writing came fairly easy. First he did the work of an editor, deciding which pieces of the original Romero material to use, and how. “That more or less created what the Romero/Kraus style would be, just by me editing George,” he says. “There was a lot that was very complicated about this book. But the voice was very natural.”
Perhaps most importantly, Kraus trusted himself, figuring that as a Romero devotee who’d been writing his own bestselling genre fiction for more than a decade, he might know how to create characters and invent storylines that would work well in this book. For example, while Romero had the idea to include zombie POV chapters — and had left extensive notes about the nature of zombie consciousness — Kraus wrote those sections in his own style, making the choice to shift them into a second-person perspective.
“George was a fount of great ideas,” Kraus says. “But with me being maybe more of a seasoned novelist, I sometimes would shake up his format a little bit.”
Still, he adds, “My major concern was always staying true to Romero. I always tried to be sensitive to what I think he would’ve approved of. I literally had pieces of paper taped to my computer with reminders not to wander off into ‘Daniel Kraus Land.’ Romero had certain viewpoints, and I had to honor those as much as possible.”
Those viewpoints include a bedrock pessimism about the ultimate fate of humanity. Romero’s movies routinely demonstrate his fascination and even admiration for human industriousness, as his characters build well-appointed little bunkers for themselves, seemingly secure from the flesh-eating ghouls shambling around outside. But the ghouls do eventually get in, because in Romero’s world, people are also often too arrogant, greedy, and impulsive to survive. They make catastrophic mistakes while looking after their short-term interests.
This is a vision that may resonate all the more in this pandemic year. But the ultimate purpose of The Living Dead isn’t to comment on 2020, but instead to carry all Romero’s social commentary in one giant vessel. The book’s story spans decades, and makes passing references to the events from Romero’s six zombie films, treating them as the jumping-off point for a longer, more expansive, more complex tale he never got to tell onscreen. Kraus made a lot of the choices for where the plot would go, but always in service of what Romero wanted.
Or, as Kraus puts it: “You get George on the first page, and you get George on the last page, and you get George spread all throughout.”
The Living Dead will be released on Aug. 4.
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