“Empire Of The Dead” : George Romero Brings His Newest Zombie Epic To The Printed Page


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Normally I’m not one for hype, but Marvel’s advertising tagline describing their new series from the father of the modern zombie genre, George A. Romero, as a “comics event” actually strikes me as being a fairly accurate one. I mean, when the guy who gave us Night Of The Living DeadDawn Of The Dead, and Day Of The Dead eschews the silver screen to tell his newest “living dead” story in the comic book format, that’s big news, right?

And from the word “go,” issue #1 of Empire Of The Dead (okay, fair enough, its complete title, according to the copyright indicia,  is George Romero’s Empire Of The Dead Act One, Number 1) has a suitably “big” feel to it, and even though artist Alex Maleev approaches his work in a sketchy, rough, “stripped-down” style — which is flat-out gorgeous, by the way — the overall tone here is much more, if you’ll forgive the term, “epic,” than certainly Romero’s last two (very much under-appreciated) film efforts, Diary Of The Dead and Survival Of The Dead, were.

The setting is New York City, five years after the dead began to walk, and things are, as you’d expect, a mess. Corrupt Mayor Chandrake and his creepy nephew hold the city in their thrall by providing Roman Gladiator-style “Zombie Fights” in Yankee stadium that serve to distract a weary populace from the fact that all the resources — well, all the resources that remain, at any rate — are flowing right to the top. A moneyed elite lives in luxury while the populace starves. Sound familiar?

Our two main points of audience identification in the midst of this neo-feudalistic dystopia are Columbia University research scientist Dr. Penny Jones, who’s looking for a zombie with the potential to be, if not educated, at least domesticated, and her guide through the undead part of town, a privateer of sorts who captures zombies for use in the arena named Paul Barnum, whose main claim to fame is having “discovered” current champion fighter Zanzibar.

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Obviously, even at this early stage (Act One is slated to run five issues, with further mini-series to follow) parallels to previous Romero works abound. Penny shares the same research obsessions as Richard Liberty’s Dr. Logan character from Day Of The Dead, while Barnum is essentially a stand-in for Simon Baker’s Riley Denbo from Land Of The Dead. There’s a flashback sequence that intimates strongly that this story takes place in the same fictional “universe” as Night Of The Living Dead, and the economic set-up is, again, essentially the same 1%-vs.-99% scenario that the more-seemingly-prescient-by-the-day Land offered up, with Mayor Chandrake filling the role of Dennis Hopper’s Kaufman. Meanwhile  Zanzibar, for his part, seems to be being groomed for a role not too dissimilar from that of Bub in Day.

Don’t think it’s all re-hash, though — for one thing, moving things from Pittsburgh and its immediate environs to the Big Apple ups the scale quite a bit, the text blocks Romero employs to flesh out how the zombies “think” provide intriguing new insight into the workings of their rudimentary “consciousness,” the martial-law-type scenario that pervades on the streets adds a new , thematically-relevant wrinkle, and the surprising climax to issue one shows — and I sincerely hope that I’m not giving too much away here — that zombies aren’t the only ghouls in town.

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So, yeah — there’s enough “newness” here to imbue the proceedings with a reasonably fresh take on things, but for those of us who are old-school Romero die-hards, the story is chock-full of enough familiar themes and tropes to keep us both smiling and anxious for more. The set-up is inherently and immediately topical and politically charged (Occupy The Living Dead, anyone?), and, like all of the maestro’s best work, Empire promises to use its zombies as a stand-in for ourselves, and to utilize its post- apocalyptic sworld to shine some welcome light on uncomfortable, but essential, truths about our own current socio-economic predicament.

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For my part, I’m all in on this one, despite having numerous ethical qualms about spending so much as a single dollar (not to mention a hefty $3.99 per issue) on any Marvel product. I think we’re looking at another Romero classic-in-the-making here, and I can’t wait to see where it goes.

 

 

 

9 responses to ““Empire Of The Dead” : George Romero Brings His Newest Zombie Epic To The Printed Page

  1. I’ve heard and read about this comic from the master, but didn’t realize it was being published by Marvel.

    I, for one, agree with you in the underappreciatedness (yes that’s a word according to me) of both Diary and Survival, though when put up in the same light as the previous films they do fall short.

    From what you just described in your review it looks like Empire of the Dead is going to be light-years ahead and better than the last zombie comic that supposedly had his input in: Toe Tags.

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    • Yeah, he’s not some air-quote “consultant” or whatever on this one, he’s writing it himself, and it’s very much of a piece with his first four films rather than the last two, which, like you, I liked more than most seem to have, but don;t think are up to same standard as his earlier films.

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  2. Finally caved and bought a copy and I must say that you’re right in just how good it is. The issue really is just an intro from start to finish, but we already get a sense of the sort of people the main characters are. I like how he ties in NOTLD with the rest of the zombie films he’s written and directed.

    When I first heard about the “twist” to that scene in NOTLD I wasn’t buying it, but he pulled it off rather well. Now, as for the ending which introduces a sort of mystery, part of me hopes Romero goes all the way and just go out on a limb by pitting one monster against another, but part of me wonders if he’s setting up a red herring.

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    • Glad you liked it! I think we’re headed for a “monster battle,” but of a decidedly cerebral sort (if such a thing can be said to exist) with zombies being portrayed as the philosophical “better,” if you will, to their counterparts.

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