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 Dead, Dawn 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.
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.
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.
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.