Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema (Book)

Written by Jamie Russell

Published by FAB Press

I’m one of the few horror fans that doesn’t remember the exact time and place when I first saw a zombie. It seems like everyone who loves this genre can pinpoint that moment when the dead first shambled into their lives, but for me it just seems as if they’ve always been there.

I’m sure it started with Romero, as it usually does, but as the latest literary masterpiece from FAB Press, Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema, illustrates, the zombie has been around a lot longer than the man who made them a household ghoul. Author Jamie Russell has compiled years worth of research and study to trace the evolution of the zombie in cinema, as it is truly the first monster without a strict literary background, and the result is one of the most entertaining and enlightening tomes the publisher has put out to date.

I love zombies and the films they’re in just as much as the next guy, but it takes a special kind of fan, one with a real passion for this genre, to compile information the way Russell did for this book. FAB’s releases are never small affairs, and at just over 300 pages (small print, two columns per page) Book of the Dead is no exception, but it moves along at such a great clip and Russell’s narrative voice is so distinct that it just never feels long to me like some of their other books have. Of course that may have to do with the fact that zombies are very near & dear to my heart, so reading a definitive tome on their evolution was nothing but a pleasure for me.

Beginning back in the 1940’s when William Seabrook combined real anthropology with a dash of action in his book The Magic Island, Russell goes through every incarnation the zombie has taken throughout it’s relatively short life (death?) span. The beginnings of the zombie story are in Haiti and surrounding areas, where stories of men enslaved by plantations owners wielding voodoo spells were commonplace and the idea of zombies among the population was part of everyday life. Of course, back then zombies were the living stripped of their will, their essence of being, rather than shambling corpses. Only later did they come be known exclusively as reanimated cadavers.

As the culture in America and across the globe changed, so did the zombie, and Russell does a commendable job drawing parallels between societal issues going on in a specific period of history and how they affected the zombie movies made during the same time frame. It’s certainly not a new idea, societal woes have always had an influence on horror movies in general, but it’s one that Russell is able to draw very logical and thought-provoking arguments from time and time again for the length of the book.

But Book of the Dead isn’t all about scholarly examinations of the living dead. If it were I would have to say FAB were officially taking themselves too seriously. Because the zombie’s evolution is traced from the early 1940’s to the present, the time line has to be proceeded down relatively quickly in order to get through it all, which gives Russell many opportunities to not only discuss, usually in extensive detail, the classics of their time period (from Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue through to Land of the Dead), but also give a good bagging to those films that came along which almost ended the zombie genre all together because of their sheer awfulness. Possessed with a sharp wit and an ability to sniff out bullshit quickly (judging by the extensive reviews section in the back the man must’ve spent a lot of time with the dead), as well as being an overall solid writer, Russell had me smiling on more than one occasion with is apt obliteration of some of the worst zombie movies filmmakers had to offer.

Of course, no FAB book is complete without it’s pictures, and Book of the Dead certainly delivers in that department as well. Featuring rare stills and press photos from everything from The Ghost Breakers to I Walked With a Zombie to the Blind Dead trilogy, the imagery within is just as striking as the prose that accompanies it. In two areas of the book, towards the middle and right before the reviews section, there are collections of high-quality color stills and poster art for the films discussed in the preceding chapters that visually showcase just how much the zombie genre has grown since it’s humble beginnings. It’s a beautiful thing, folks.

The reviews section which wraps the book covers pretty much every zombie movie that you’ve heard of (and a lot you probably haven’t) with the exception of some of the more low-budget indie productions that either aren’t worth mentioning (though some that I felt were completely worthless are even included as a “buyer beware” service) or not readily available. It’s obvious Russell and fellow reviewer David A. Oakes didn’t see much of their friends or family for the months they were working on this area of the book, because it is exhaustive at best.

I really could go on and on about how great Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema is, but I think if you give it a chance the book will gladly speak (or moan, as it were) for itself. This book should be essential reading for anyone who fancies themselves an expert in the area of zombie cinema, because I’m sure even they could learn a thing or two within.

5 out of 5

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Johnny Butane