Review by Ian Keogh
With The Walking Dead a TV hit by 2014 as well as a phenomenally successful comic series, and their own Marvel Zombies franchise doing well, how could Marvel raise the zombie culture bar higher? The answer lay in letting zombie meister George A. Romero loose in comics. His 1968 Night of the Living Dead movie influenced every single zombie film, TV show, book or comic that followed, and Romero paired with Alex Maleev’s dark grainy naturalism would in most circumstances be a natural winning collaboration. However, Empire of the Dead followed Romero’s 21st century zombie films that not even enthusiasts could wholeheartedly recommend, and surely he was keeping his best ideas for films?
Romero’s new idea is that some zombies retain a form of remembered human behaviour, and will carry out rudimentary tasks up to a level of playing checkers. Paul Barnum gathers these for presentation in arena combat, and Penny Jones has been sent to accompany him in the hopes of locating a zombie who has greater intelligence. The use of the term ‘Act’ in the title, and the story being a trilogy indicate Romero views his story in cinematic terms, and with Maleev he introduces the good, the bad and the irredeemable of the cast, while fostering a relationship between the two lead characters. This is a New York where it’s possible to survive alongside the vast zombie population as long as no unnecessary risks are taken. There are, however, two wild cards, one being a former police officer who’s now a zombie.
Empire of the Dead seems instantly familiar territory. With the zombies providing the cannon fodder, there may be a few fudges and compromises along the way, but the tension comes from the possibility of surprise zombie attack, not from figuring out peoples’ motives. The black hats are obvious, although they do have a secret, and it’s the cross-pollination of horror genres that gives Empire of the Dead a freshness absent from Romero’s later zombie movies. In previous outings his zombies have been nothing more than a savage horde, and he’s toying with that formula. Maleev brings this out nicely. As proved in Daredevil, his style is ideal for grimy urban settings, he puts the effort into detail that convinces, and he doesn’t flinch from providing the zombie savagery we want.
Act One concludes with a new and powerful interested party heading for New York, and a revelation. Empire of the Dead isn’t Romero throwing in second hand ideas, but Romero using the unlimited budget available to the comics artist. Much of what he seems to be setting up would eat through any film budget. It’s a very promising start, and we’ll see how that continues in Act Two. Alternatively the entire saga is available as George A. Romero’s Empire of the Dead.