Dead Lives Matter (2022)
By John A. Russo
Detective Andrew Brown is after rapist/killer Roger Dowman, who escaped capture only to find Brown's daughter and murder her. Dowman's eventually put down, but when a couple of screwballs go to retrieve stolen loot from the Evans City Cemetery, Dowman and his army of the dead rise and tear hell out of the living.
This new "living dead" novel by John A. Russo moves at a quick clip and basically abandons any he-hawing for in-your-face zombie thrills and chills. Characters are introduced, zombies appear and the characters either band together or split apart in their attempt to survive, to various degrees of success.
As you well know, Russo co-wrote the seminal modern horror masterpiece Night of the Living Dead. To say he co-wrote it, however, I think, belittles his contributions since he was part of the core group that ate, slept and pooped that movie from the moment of its conception all the way to its distribution and beyond. He contributed to the living dead mythos that are held so dear by fans today. Fans are quick to say that there would be no The Walking Dead without George A. Romero. I'll go a step further and add there would also be no The Walking Dead without John A. Russo either.
While Russo continued to toil in the low-budget world of filmmaking with such films as The Booby Hatch, Midnight and the Romero directed There's Always Vanilla, he also became an excellent writer, authoring nearly a dozen books between the novelization of Night of the Living Dead in 1974 into the mid 80's.
Some of his best novels include his original sequel to NOTLD, Return of the Living Dead, which is a perfect follow up with hold over characters. Limb to Limb is an intense thriller about mad doctors and rich people driven to prey on the poor; Black Cat, about a family on vacation encountering a twisted clan at a roadside attraction and Bloodsisters, a psychological thriller that reads like a reimagining of sorts of Robert Bloch's Psycho, written for the slasher/splatter era.
Russo was splatter punk before splatter punk was a thing. He continued honing his story telling skills with such titles as vampire epic The Awakening and his very best novel, Living Things. (Why this has never been made into a movie is criminal.)
I feel sad for fans who only know Russo for "co-writing" NOTLD and nothing more.
I've always been a fan of his novels. One of my great joys was corresponding with horror scribe Richard Laymon and Laymon asking me if I knew what had happened to Russo, basically saying that he was one of his favorite horror writers in the 80's.
John Russo kept on writing, including Making Movies and Scare Tactics (two bibles for filmmakers), and making movies and videos and magazines and he wrote a bunch of other zombie stories, comics and novels.
As I get older, I will stop anyone on the street to bemoan how things have changed. "Movies aren't any good and the music is garbage and streaming...what's that? I miss video stores and malls. I remember when MTV played music. I miss the '80s. Blah!"
But John Russo is still knocking out great novels. In fact, his zombie novels all exist in the same world and I find them a great comfort to read and revisit. I know what I'm getting into when I pick up a zombie novel by Russo. For me, it's a very relaxing way to enjoy something that I have enjoyed for decades.
It's interesting to see how both Russo and Romero continued telling their zombie stories after NOTLD. Romero created a dead world with his first trilogy and then explored new stories in his second. In Russo's paperback world of the living dead, the strange plague has returned multiple times over the last fifty years, like a freak storm, to decimate the small communities of Northern Pennsylvania.
What I think is the most interesting about Russo's living dead zombie world and Romero's dead cinematic world is that neither men tell "zombie" stories. They tell stories about humans, about all the horrible stuff we do to one another, and then they drop flesh hungry ghouls into the mix and see how the people react. They tell people stories and use the living dead as a force of nature.
Russo shows no sign of slowing down. No kidding. Last year alone, 2022, saw nine new novels from him. You read that correctly, nine. (That's just the nine I know about. I would not be surprised to learn a couple others slipped by me.) And he is telling a lot of different stories, science-fiction, thrillers, tech thrillers, westerns. The thing I love about Russo's novels is the fact that the world of cinema plays a part in many of them. In a typical Russo storyline you might get a stuntman or a documentary filmmaker or a writer of slasher movies as a main or secondary character. His knowledge of that world informs the characters like no one else writing similar characters.
And he's never afraid to have some fun and splash a little blood.
If you only know John A. Russo from NOTLD, I can safely say you don't know Jack.
Night of the Living Dead (1974, Novelization)
Return of the Living Dead (1978)
The Majorettes (1979)
Limb to Limb (1981)
The Black Cat (1982)
The Awakening (1983)
Day Care (1985)
Return of the Living Dead (1985, UK Novelization of the movie)
Voodoo Dawn (1987)
Living Things (1988)
Hell's Creation (1995)
Escape from the Living Dead (2013, part of The Hungry Dead collection with Midnight)
The Booby Hatch (2014, Novelization)
Dealey Plaza (2014)
The Academy (2014, updated version of Day Care)
My Uncle John is a Zombie! (2018, Novelization)
Epidemic of the Living Dead (2018)
The Darkest Web (2022)
The Night They Came Home (2022)
The Unearthly (2022)
Weep No More (2022)
The Killing Truth (2022)
The Price of Admission (2022)
The Killer Next Door (2022)
Dead Lives Matter (2022)