Written by George Romero
Art by Alex Maleev
Colors by Matt Holingsworth
Letters by VC’s Cory Petit
Cover by Alex Maleev
George Romero decided to make his latest zombie masterpiece a comic book with a planned 15 issues split into three acts,rather than a movie. Act 1 was recently released as a trade paperback. It’s hard to write an objective review of Empire Of The Dead. If you are over a certain age and love zombies than you know that George Romero almost singlehandedly defined the genre. In which case it becomes too easy too give him a pass on his more recent endeavors (Survival Of The Dead) because of his past work (Dawn Of The Dead). If you don’t care for zombies than you have no business reading Empire Of The Dead in the first place.
Since the author of this review fits into category one, here is a subjective review of Empire Of The Dead : it’s good. The budgetary constraints and horrible sfx that marred Survival Of The Dead are no where to be found in the comics medium. Romero takes advantage of this freedom by setting Empire Of The Dead in New York City, a location that he would never be able to afford to shoot one of his micro-budgeted films in. Taking away the the distractions of horrible locations and effects allows the reader to focus on something Romero has always done well:the characters. What has always separated Romero’s zombie films from the Resident Evils and The World War Zs is the way the characters are written. George Romero writes characters that we care about. He writes dialogue that echoes our own thoughts about the end of the world. Empire Of The Dead is no exception.
Empire Of The Dead sets up a familiar Romero scenario.It is five years since the dead began to walk and hunger for human flesh. New York City is effectively barricaded from the sea of walking corpses that plague the world and inside it’s walls everything goes back to business as usual. There is a mayor, and the city functions much as it did before the stinkers. Yes, in typical Romero fashion, no one calls the walking dead “Zombies”. In Empire Of The Dead it’s stinkers,in Land Of The Dead it was stenches. The Story starts off with the meeting of Barnum and Penny. Barnum is in charge of the Circus Maximus, an arena in the city where zombies are made to fight, gladiatorial style for the amusement of the people. Penny is Romero’s obligatory heroine,this time a researcher from Columbia University sent to study how Barnum can seemingly train the stinkers to fight each other without live human bait. We are also introduced to Mayor Chandrake and his one eyed nephew Bill, who’s cape is a sly nod to what he really is. Then we have Xavier,a former SWAT team member and current shambling corpse who seems to have a bit more brains than the average zombie.
The idea of Zombies getting smarter and evolving is something Romero has been dabbling in ever since 1985 when Day Of The Dead came out. Nowhere has he executed this idea more effectively than in Empire Of The Dead. The added narrative level of being able to see what is going on inside the zombies minds, the fragmented simplistic thoughts that they form is one that only the medium of comics can deliver. On top of that Romero throws in a nice bit of connective tissue between the main character Penny and Night Of The Living Dead that helps to reaffirm why she herself believes that zombies can change. Fairly early into the story we get the reveal that zombies are not he only living dead in New York City. They’ve also got one hell of a vampire problem.
Xavier soon wanders into Penny and Barnum’s hands, who realizing that she isn’t like the other stinkers, decide to train and observe her to see how much she can learn or conversely how much she has retained. Meanwhile in the upper echelon of the current New York Society we are treated to just how much of the population of New York City are Nosferatu. The Mayor, his nephew, the police force and several high ranking members of society all turn out to be bloodsuckers. The vampires manage to keep the general populace ignorant of the existence of a second group of undead amongst them but not for long. A couple of Dracula wannabes drain a woman out in the open hoping to leave her for zombie chow, only to be discovered by a group of the living. They bolt leaving their not quite dead food to be brought to the hospital by some good Samaritans.Xavier escapes from Penny and Barnum but only long enough to pick up a street urchin tag along and organize a sort of zombie union, call it the Local 6ft Under. The first act ends with a van full of southerners coming into New York to reek havoc, with a convoy of heavy artillery military vehicles only a couple of miles behind.
The Artwork by Alex Maleev is excellent. His New York looks appropriately grimy,his zombies gruesome and his humans haggard. The writing of course is top notch as always from George Romero- the dialogue especially-is a treat.The latest work from the Father of the modern zombie doesn’t revolutionize the genre, but neither does it retread the same tired steps as everyone else. Empire Of The Dead is a solid zombie apocalypse scenario with enough twists and new concepts to keep it from feeling like a Walking Dead ripoff.
At 74 George Romero may not be at the top of his game but he still has some good stories to tell, and a good story from a master is better than a great story from a hack any day.