The bestselling author discusses his epic collaboration with George Romero
George Romero was working on his zombie opus, The Living Dead, when he died in 2017. The master filmmaker’s estate brought in Daniel Kraus, a writer with a proven track record of bleak, but commercially successful, horror, to finish the project.
Kraus was already well-versed in the Romero universe. In the last decade, his books have covered the gamut of the corpse-world, everything from trash-heaped teddy bears to professional grave-robbers. He’s also no stranger to collaborations, having worked repeatedly with horror megastar Guillermo del Toro on bestsellers such as Trollhunters and the novelization of the Oscar-winning film, The Shape of Water.
With an actual pandemic in full bloom, the 650+ page Romero-Kraus collaboration publishes today, with accolades already pouring in from horror stalwarts such as del Toro, Clive Barker, Grady Hendrix, Paul Tremblay, and Joe Hill, who calls it “a work of gory genius.”
The Living Dead (Tor) is truly an epic volume of zombie literature, just as harrowing, bloody, and bleak as any of Romero’s classic films. Kraus discussed with us some of the themes he explored in the book, what it was like stepping into Romero’s shoes, and if there’s any hope for humanity in a plague-infested world.
Q: It’s clear from reading the Afterword how much research went into The Living Dead to immerse yourself into George Romero’s world. How much of that was putting yourself into a certain creative mindset and how much ended up in the novel?
Most of it was the acquisition of material assets: I wanted to know everything that he’d put out there about zombies, beyond his films, so that I could extrapolate that into a future vision. George had given us a clear roadmap for years 1-5 of the zombie uprising, but beyond that I only had bits and bobs. Approaching it like a scientist, I postulated that I could truly understand what had come before, I should be able to better understand the endpoint to which George was headed. It was an absolutely crucial investigation that made me realize things about George’s zombies that I’m not sure if anyone else had ever realized. Of course, writing isn’t a science; that’s where interviews with his wife Suz, and efforts like that, came into play, to help me understand the heart of the man.
Q: Given that you were already a Romero fan, what was the most surprising thing you learned about him while doing your research?
From a mechanical viewpoint, I was surprised by how interested George was in the concept of zombie animals. That took some digging to figure out, but it paid massive dividends. As far as his personal life, it really got hammered into me how largely disinterested he was in the horror genre. He rarely watched it, rarely read it, rarely discussed it outside of interviews. This may sound like a let-down to fans, but I urge them to see it a different way. George was not part of the feedback loop that any horror fan, including myself, can get trapped inside. This helped his work always feel unique and vital.
Q: I want to ask about the ETA Hoffman angle and the impact the author had on Romero and other early horror filmmakers. In the novel, the character of Etta Hoffman is an obvious nod, but are there other “Easter Eggs” you would attribute to Hoffman?
Oh yes, plenty! I don’t know the Venn diagram of Romero fans and opera fans, but if such people exist, they’ll find plenty of references. Just to dangle an easy clue, go check out the name of the main antagonist in The Tales of Hoffmann.
Q: Romero’s movies are famous for their social subtext. How prevalent for you was integrating social subtext into the story?
It was hugely important. If you’re going to work on a George Romero project and not be interested in those issues, what are you even doing? A lot of those concerns were baked into the manuscript George left behind and I resolved to keep the gas pedal pushed. George was a very America-focused filmmaker, and this was the central theme of his work. It is the backbone of his more obvious theme: that Americans today can’t pull together in a crisis.
Q: One recurring theme is the negative effect of technology’s insertion into our everyday lives, specifically social media and cell phones. In some places throughout the story suggesting that social media and cell phones are equal to mustard gas and the atomic bomb. Was this ideology / skepticism something that surfaced with Romero’s original text, or something you personally feel strongly about?
This was more George than me, but he is pretty convincing. When I interviewed those who knew him well, a certain anti-technology bent came up again and again. Most of the time, his ire focused on social media. To put it simply, he thought it would destroy us. His view was that social media promoted the “I” in a world that needed more “we”–which is basically that plot of Night of the Living Dead, right? He felt so strongly about it that he made an entire film about the subject: Diary of the Dead, which gets more prophetic every year.
Diary came out in 2007. What was the major social network at that point? Friendster? And yet he already saw the faultlines. Once I was in that mindset, I started to see the metaphor everywhere. In Dawn of the Dead, George compared mindless consumers to zombies; I started seeing people on the streets mindlessly stumbling around, glassy eyes pointed at their phones, and realized, holy shit — we’re the zombies, all of us, staring at our bright gadgets, like the zombies in Land of the Dead stare at the bright fireworks.
Q: The narrative structure of the novel is unique in that instead of bouncing between storylines, you went a long way with each storyline before switching over to another. What led you to structure the book this way?
George’s manuscript initiated this structure, so I continued it. It’s that simple. But I came to like it. Each sequence is sequential, so it wouldn’t make sense to intercut them–the aircraft carrier section takes places after the cable-news section, and so forth. I liked the idea of presenting each of the opening four sections as their own “movie,” which we then begin to intermix in the fifth section, before fully bringing the characters together later. It gives the reader time to really sink their teeth into each set of characters. Sometimes intercutting too early in a book is exhausting. You feel like you keep having to start over.
Q: Tonally, I felt like The Living Dead fit well with Romero’s zombie films–bleak and dark and skeptical, but with a sliver of hope. How important was it for you to match the tone of the films in the novel?
Because I was literally raised on Romero–a fan since age five or six–his worldview and tone are very close to mine, so there wasn’t a lot of realigning to do. George and I are both dyed-in-the-wool pessimists. Or, as we would both probably tell you, “realists.” A sliver of hope is pretty much all I’m typically inclined to allow my characters. It was important to me that the book match with Romero’s zombie movies. In fact, the short second act of the book is constructed so that you can plop George’s six zombie movies in there if you’d like, the idea being that he’d already covered those years of the zombie uprising, years 1-5. The new stuff begins in Year Six, what the books refers to as “Year Fucking Six.”
Q: Lastly, was there ever any sense of pushback regarding the length of The Living Dead? It almost seems an act of defiance in the current marketplace, like putting out a three-plus hour zombie movie. Was this ever a concern, or was making Romero’s novel an “epic” always part of the plan?
There was no overt pushback, though books this long always pay a silent price. Some readers just aren’t up to the commitment. Some foreign markets shy away a little, since translating long books is so expensive. But I didn’t care about any of that. George’s manuscript made it clear that he wanted to have the kind of scope movie budgets never allowed him. That was catnip to me; having been thinking about George’s zombies all my life, I had a lot to say too. Zombies are one of the most agile and muscular metaphors that ever existed. It’s a well that, for me, never runs dry.