‘Cemetery Kids Don’t Die’ Writer Zac Thompson On His Love Letter to ‘eXistenZ’

Cemetery Kids Don't Die

Plenty of horror media has investigated the relationship between video games and reality, especially the horror classic Stay Alive. As technology has adapted and video games have only become more part of our media landscape, there are only more stories to tell about our ever-changing relationship with the digital sphere. In the new series Cemetery Kids Don’t Die, writer Zac Thompson and artist Daniel Irizarri create a familiar yet alien world where something called Dreamwave tech can put you in your favorite horror game. Inspired by fantasy tales and the works of David Cronenberg, this new series is a gore-geous mix of science fiction and horror.

Read the full synopsis below:

The 21st century sucks hard, but it’s made somewhat tolerable by the latest and greatest media innovations. Enter the Dreamwave: the first gaming console played entirely while you sleep. The obsession of millions around the globe, it’s also the one point of solace for four friends known as the “Cemetery Kids,” who spend their nights roaming the endless maps of the most brutal horror game ever created as they seek to dethrone the “King of Sleep”—the Dreamwave’s biggest, baddest, and most mysterious boss. 

Which was fun . . . until one of them doesn’t wake up and finds their consciousness locked inside a horror game that is anything but imaginary. Now, the three remaining Cemetery Kids must navigate a forbidden landscape to rescue their friend—and pray that the secret lurking at its center doesn’t follow them home. 

We spoke with Thompson over email about his love of all things Cronenberg and Barker, incorporating disabled characters into the story, and more.

Dread Central: Where did the initial idea for Cemetery Kids Don’t Die come from? Why did you want to tackle the horror of the digital space?

Zac Thompson: The idea came from lots of late nights thinking about the tenuous barrier between the reality of an addictive game and the real world. I’ve always loved stories where we’re exploring two different worlds. And the trope of “going to hell and back” in horror or “someone came back wrong” kinda thing really inspired the series. 

So I wanted to explore those ideas in the world of digital spaces. I love the idea of this incredibly immersive second reality that’s basically a giant open-world survival horror game and that there are tons of people who would go there willingly every night. But the question is what’s the cost? What, inevitably, comes back with them?

DC: Are you yourself a horror fan? If so, what books/comics/movies have been massive inspirations for you as a writer?

ZT: I’m a HUGE horror fan. I’m constantly inspired by the work of David Cronenberg. I mean Cemetery Kids Don’t Die is a big love letter to eXistenZ. I’m also obsessed with the work of Clive Barker. Reading the Books of Blood for the first time basically lit my brain on fire. The short stories in that collection are this fabulous mix of transgressive, grotesque, and thought-provoking. I’m always striving for that wonderfully beautiful and visceral Barker prose.

Beyond that, in the world of comics, I wouldn’t be writing today if it wasn’t for Charles Burns Black Hole. That was the first horror comic that showed me the power of the medium. There are pages of Black Hole that I can still vividly see when I close my eyes. They’ll linger with me for a long time. 

DC: How do you balance gore and character-building in your work?

ZT: Gore doesn’t resonate without strong characters. There has to be a clear investment in the emotional side so the horror aspects really land. So it’s all about figuring out how to build deep characters with strong fears, and then finding unique and interesting ways to exploit those fears on the page. I wanted to make sure that every character in the cast felt like the protagonist of their own story. While they’re all there in service of Birdie’s journey, each of them has their own wants and dreams. I know what they were doing in the years leading to the series and what they want to be when they graduate. I know what they’re afraid of and just how to bring that hell down upon them.

DC: I love how one of the protagonists in Cemetery Kids Don’t Die is disabled. What was the decision-making process like to incorporate her into the story?

ZT: I’m a big proponent of bringing more disability representation into comics. My Dad is in a wheelchair. It’s not a big deal. Yes, the world isn’t really built for people in wheelchairs but it’s not something that defines him in any real way. So I wanted to bring that to Birdie. She’s someone who was disabled at a young age but it’s not something that defines her in any real way. It informs her character and it’s something she lives with. It’s not a big deal in the story just as it’s not a big deal to her.

DC: How did you and Daniel determine what each character’s avatar/playable character looked like? Did that involve a lot of character/world-building for each character?

ZT: Daniel is a powerhouse. He’s just this multifaceted talent with impeccable storytelling skills. Everything about the dream world of Nightmare Cemetery just oozes life thanks to his work. His character designs (both in-game and in reality) are just so full of personality that I think readers are going to fall in love at first glance. I know I did.

The character avatars were born from a lot of back and forth between us. I gave him broad influences from Dungeons and Dragons and other fantasy references like Elden Ring or Bloodborne. And we built out their classes and individual visual sense from there. It involved making sure that their character class made logical sense in the world and that their powers of abilities were visually represented through their design. So while the book doesn’t come out and tell you their classes, you should be able to piece things together just from watching them navigate the game world.

DC: Are you a video game person? What are some of your faves??

ZT: I’m a huge gamer. My current favorites are the Resident Evil 4 Remake, Alan Wake II, and the Dead Space remake. Those three really scared the shit outta me!

Cemetery Kids Don’t Die #1 hits shelves on February 21, 2024.

Cemetery Kids Don't Die


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