Giving zombie meister George A. Romero the opportunity to write his own graphic novels was a no-brainer, and Marvel must have been overjoyed when he signed the contract. Surely success beckoned. Well…

What might have been expected was Romero giving us the zombie movie he’d never have the budget to make, and in some ways that’s what Empire of the Dead is, yet after a promising start we see less and less of the zombies as other plots predominate, and by the end Romero seems to have lost interest. To celebrate the launch, Romero provides a new wrinkle on zombie culture. It seems some zombies retain a rudimentary intelligence associated with routines from their former lives. Dr Penny Jones is hoping to discover even more when she accompanies Paul Barnum on one of his regular round-ups collecting specimens for zombie gladiatorial contests. She does discover more, and a former police officer bitten protecting Barnum’s crew goes into automatic mode carrying out her previous duties protecting people. It’s an intriguing start, and Romero’s subsequent introduction of vampires also seems interesting in a promising start.

To begin with everything is brought to life by Alex Maleev (sample spread left), who illustrates the entirety of what was previously released as Act One, creating comprehensively grimy locations, suitably scuzzy zombies and providing detail alongside savagery. It’s a baton picked up by Andrea Mutti for what was originally released as Act Three, but in between we have Dalibor Talajić (sample spread right) drawing Act Two. In terms of technique, Talajić is a superb artist, but he’s not suited to the world of zombies and vampires, for which his style is just too clean. Additionally, under Talajić the slimy Mayor Chandrake bears too great a resemblance to Tony Stark.

Act One pushes most of the right buttons, the tension being created by the zombie hordes, their provocation and the possibility of a greater intelligence than usual. Act Two ups the ante via introducing a persistent police detective aware all is not well among New York’s politicians, yet unable to work out why. To this point Romero has taken a very cinematic approach, and while the cast may be instantly recognisable archetypes, they serve their purpose well. It’s with Act Two, however, that Romero begins to lose sight of his core plots, introducing another major threat, but a surprise ending counts for a lot.

Unfortunately Act Three fails to sustain the plot, and everything falls apart during an arc through which Romero seems to be losing interest. By now it’s apparent that the zombies have only a minor role to play, that of constant background threat, and while he ties up his plots unpredictably, it’s also unsatisfactorily, as one anticlimax follows another to an extremely rushed ending. It leaves Empire of the Dead as a project that might have been, but wasn’t. Very disappointing.