On Halloween, Avatar Press will launch its new, ongoing Night of the Living Dead: Aftermath series. To support the launch of this monthly horror series, Avatar is reprinting classic NOTLD tales as a value-priced Day of the Undead graphic novel ($2.99 for 64 pages), plus offering a variety of promotional items to retailers to encourage zombie cosplayers, contests, and other undead events at the local comic book shops. David Hine (Civil War: X-Men, The Darkness) has taken the reins on the Aftermath series, and provided some thoughts on the story and legacy of George A. Romero's original zombie classic.
How did you first become involved with the Night of the Living Dead: Aftermath project from Avatar Press?
About a year ago, someone not a million miles from Bleeding Cool dropped my name to Avatar publisher William Christensen as a possible writer on the new Crossed: Badlands bi-monthly. When William contacted me, he also mentioned that he was working up a new ongoing series based on the Night of the Living Dead and was open to ideas on how to progress the story beyond the setting of the first movie in 1968. Avatar had already published several mini-series and one-shots, with some of the stories co-written by John Russo (who co-wrote the screenplay for the first movie along with George Romero). The first collected volume included a prequel to the movie and the second was set shortly after the first outbreak, but shifting the action to Washington, DC.
I've been interested in the idea of a community that is quarantined because of an outbreak of disease, since I first read The Plague by Albert Camus, so I pitched an idea for a storyline set in London in 1980 with punk rock and the Brixton riots as a background, where Brixton is basically cordoned off from the rest of London to contain the zombie epidemic, and the inhabitants abandoned to live or die by their own wits. From a commercial and practical point of view, that setting was not going to work. It was a little too removed from the majority of our readership and would have been logistical hell for the artists, who would have no knowledge of the time period or the geographical setting. I switched the setting to the USA, but kept the punk elements and the timeline. William went for it.
What can you tell us about the first storyline in the Night of the Living Dead: Aftermath series? What's it about, and who are the main characters?
It's 1980, a little more than 10 years after the first zombie outbreak and people have grown complacent, accepting the official medical view that the disease has been wiped out. In Los Angeles, a punk band called Creeping Flesh are playing their first big gig and the streets are swarming with their fans, who have the bad taste to wear zombie make-up, causing confusion when reports start to break of a re-occurrence of the zombie epidemic. The result is the most memorable debut/farewell gig of any punk band in history.
The first arc of the story follows the exodus from Los Angeles, which causes the spread of the disease across the country. The arc is titled 'Viva Las Vegas'. Vegas is seen as a safe haven, at least for a while. The lead singer and guitarist of Creeping Flesh makes it safely to join her father, who is a Nevada senator. Circumstances throw together a real mixed bunch of survivors, who in everyday life wouldn't piss on one another if they were on fire. There's a salesman who has built his rep on selling zombie insurance, a retired couple who arrive for their dream holiday on the last plane into Vegas before airspace is shut down, and a professional gambler in town for a poker game that means life or death to him, even before the zombies show up. And there's a family that is still recovering from the trauma of being in the middle of the previous outbreak.
Will the Aftermath series follow the narrative of any one person throughout, or like Crossed: Badlands, will each storyline follow different characters?
There's a core group of characters who are introduced through the first arc, but there's no guarantee how many of them will survive to the second arc. In future storylines, we'll be following them as they flee across the USA, trying to stay ahead of the epidemic. New characters will be introduced for each storyline and some of those will stay. Some, obviously, will not make it. I think we're all used to the idea that in an ongoing drama like this, people are going to die.
In the first arc, each episode is told from a different point of view, as the various character arcs overlap. Their own personal conflicts are already pretty intense and throwing zombies into the mix ramps things up to eleven on the dramatic scale. Right now, the punk singer Anne Danté looks like the most interesting character, but who knows? If she has to go, she has to go.
Romero's Night of the Living Dead, and indeed his entire Dead mythology, have iconic status in the horror genre. What are your thoughts on contributing to its legacy?
I have to confess that the reason this is a very special project to me is that I saw Night of the Living Dead when it first hit the UK movie theatres. It was a few years later than the USA release, but in those pre-internet days, word of the movie hadn't filtered through to my neck of the woods. I saw it as the B-movie on a double-bill with Silent Running. That was the movie I was waiting for and the opening minutes of Living Dead did not impress. It was in black-and-white and held all the promise of those god-awful horror movies from the 50's that provided fodder for the drive-ins. In fact, it looked like it was made in the 1950's. About five minutes into the movie, that had all changed. I was on the edge of my seat, mouth open, a voice in my head repeating, 'What the fuck?! What the fuck??!!!' over and over until the closing set of stills, with the meat hooks and those dumb rednecks who just killed the hero after he survived all that zombie shit, dammit!
It's probably hard for today's audience to understand or appreciate how groundbreaking this movie was. It absolutely defined the zombie genre and more than that, the entire horror genre, up to and including the heightened 'home-movie' reality of Blair Witch Project. I don't remember watching Silent Running at all that day, though it was a perfectly fine movie too. My brain was set to 'stunned' and I never really recovered. I just hope I can add something to the legacy that will fuck up the head of someone somewhere in the way my head was fucked up all those years ago.
Did you have much experience with the Night of the Living Dead comics prior to taking reins on the new Aftermath series? If so, what are your thoughts?
I read all three series. The first arc, by John Russo and Mike Wolfer, is particularly interesting. It's a prequel to the first movie, so you get to see the back stories of characters like Ben, the Coopers, and Sheriff McClelland. There's also a scene in a gas station that is a nod to the movie that must have inspired Romero and Russo. In Hitchcock's The Birds, there's a similar scene where a group of people are trapped in a gas station as the birds attack. I had never really made the connection before, but if you look at the Hitchcock movie and replace the birds with people you have the same basic plot.
The Death Valley miniseries is a cool premise too, with a Manson Family-style cult. I guess there were three signifiers for the end of the Love and Peace of the sixties: Altamont, Charles Manson, and Night of the Living Dead .
How does the new Aftermath series fit into the overall timeline of the Romero Dead films and the previous Avatar comic series?
This takes place 12 years after the first outbreak as seen in the first Dead movie. We're not really referencing the other movies directly, although their iconography permeates every scene. I love both of the two strands of zombie movies. Russo went into the self-parody mode with The Return of the Living Dead, but it's a great movie, maybe my favorite. It's genuinely funny and genuinely creepy, and of course, it gave us the BRAAAIINNNNSSS motif and that great line where the zombies send out for a fast food delivery: 'Send more cops!' And do I need to mention Trash dancing in the graveyard?
Romero's movies are the classics of course, and have come to dominate the public consciousness as far as zombies go, defining the rules of the game, just as Bram Stoker's Dracula defined the rules for vampires. Beyond that, Aftermath is all fresh territory.
I have a different ritual for each of the books I write. For Night of the Living Dead, I lock myself away in the basement for a week, listening to Throbbing Gristle's Hamburger Lady on continuous loop, with only a couple of quarts of Jack Daniel's Old Number 7 Tennessee Whiskey and specially imported Hershey's Cookies 'n' Creme bars for sustenance. That seems to do the trick.
What are your thoughts on the Dead film series and Night of the Living Dead comics as period pieces, set in a past era?
I suppose the movies are period pieces now. They certainly reflect their times, although that sense of social unease that underpins the zombie mythology never seems to go away. With Aftermath, I'm looking to capture the feel of the punk and post-punk era of the late 70's early 80's. It was a time when the idealism of the 60's had given way to the nihilism of the Blank Generation and was about to mutate into the selfish consumerism of the Reagan years. It's a challenge to write a story in the fairly recent past. You have to be so careful to avoid anachronisms. This is a time when we were not always contactable because telephones were not portable and there was no internet. Middle-class housewives, TV personalities and movie stars did not sport tattoos and we didn't say, "And I was, like, awesome, dude!" (Not that I say that anyway, of course). But did people say "bogus," "chill," and "stoked" in 1980? How big were boom boxes? Could you still smoke in the movie theatres? You have to get all that stuff right and I hope we don't screw up too badly.
Avatar Press plans to kick off the Aftermath series in style, launching on Halloween 2012 with variant covers, promotional kits of goodies for retailers, a value-priced reprint collection, and more. What are your thoughts on the NOTLD relaunch campaign?
As long as I get sent a package of all the merchandise, the more the merrier. I will not be wearing zombie make-up for signings, though. Sorry.
The Walking Dead is the powerhouse zombie title on the comic market today. What differentiates the monthly Aftermath series from Walking Dead or other zombie titles on the market?
I'm not going to worry too much about making it different to Walking Dead or any of the other zombie books. After all, Night of the Living Dead is where it all started. I will do what I always do and write the series in my own style. My approach to characters is different to Robert Kirkman's. He's very much into using dialogue to open up the characters. I write more stripped-down and opaque dialogue, where my characters are more likely to dissemble or lie outright. Apart from that, the sex scenes will be a little less discrete and the violence perhaps a little more gleeful. What all zombie stories have in common is that mass killing of zombies is fun. We won't forget that.