[This is a reprint of a review by Rik Tod Johnson originally posted on his site, The Cinema 4 Pylon, on June 24, 2007.]
Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema
by Jamie Russell
FAB Press | 2005
Trade paperback | 320 pages
1st edition, 2nd pressing (2006)
I have umpteen books in my library detailing the histories of just about any genre — OK, maybe not chick flicks or romance — but otherwise, I am doing just fine. Even when it comes to sub-genres, I have a few select volumes on various subjects (kaiju, aliens, slapstick, German expressionism, etc.), but never before did I consider that I would require an entire volume detailing the history of zombies and the undead (sometimes two very different things) in my collection.
Hell, I never even considered that I would want an entire book on zombie cinema in my home. This is based on my perception of the people that I know who are deeply into zombie films. Outside of my pal Aaron — aka The Working Dead, who does have considerable critical faculties (check his blog out by clicking here) — most of my acquaintances who thrive on zombie flicks pretty much just outright love anything with a zombie in it. Sensing this might be the case for someone perversely intent on filling 300-plus pages on the subject, please understand my reticence, and outright lack of consideration, in this regard.
Unbelievably, a pair of trips to the super-scrubbed squeaky-clean Downtown Disney changed my mind on this matter. Just enough time for a quick five-minute perusal at Compass Books, right before going to a film in the adjacent theatre, left me swiftly scanning the entertainment section, where I saw my first copy of Book of the Dead by Jamie Russell. Subtitled The Complete History of Zombie Cinema, the book’s grimly beckoning cover (portrayed at right) naturally made me pick it up. Thanks to the intriguing pair of hair-bedecked skulls with glowing yellow eyes peeking out of their graves, I had to check it out to see if perhaps I would be proven wrong by my long-ingrained belief about the zombie-obsessed.
Here’s the first shocker: that this book is allowed within two miles of Disneyland. Don’t
get me wrong: I’m glad it was there, and it certainly proved me wrong (which provides the second shocker). A fairly good-sized volume (320 pages, heavy paper, 7-1/4″x10″), even a cursory glance at the book revealed a well-researched and seemingly thorough trip through the nearly eighty — yes, that’s right — eighty-year history of zombie films, from Bela Lugosi’s White Zombie (1932) on down to Romero’s Land of the Dead. Flipping through the book, I found two incredibly generous sections of garish color plates, showing innumerable classic and non-classic zombie movie posters and some wonderfully bloody scenes. And finally, it has a comprehensive filmography, not necessarily (as the author suggests) a “complete” one, but built on the movies that make up the referenced films in the text, including some that are not specifically “zombie” films, such as Romero’s The Crazies, but ones that are important to the discussion of the subject peripherally. Nor did the author seek to maintain a full list of films; indeed, mere minutes after getting the book home, I discovered that Richard Elfman’s Shrunken Heads was nowhere to be found in the book, despite involving both voodoo and the living dead. (Maybe the next edition, eh?) Despite my delight with this initial look at the contents, I did not buy the book. After my allotted time expired, it was off to the movies for Jen and I, but I did mark the title down in my notebook to remind myself to seek it out at a later date.
That later date came during my next trip to Compass, and after zipping once more through the book’s contents before we hit Ocean’s Thirteen, I at last purchased Book of the Dead (which is a tad expensive at a nickel under thirty bucks) while waiting for Jen to get off work to join me. It was an absolute joy to read the book while standing around Disneyland, with a very bloody ghoul hanging about on the back cover, grabbing the odd stare from disturbed mothers as they passed by me. (You can take what I mean by the phrase “disturbed mothers” any way you wish. I meant each and every mother that passed by me, whether or not they saw the book in my hands…) Certainly there are books within Compass which might not be exactly “family” material, but in a bookshop that is half devoted to children’s fare, to find this volume, with its graphic depictions of gore and nudity, couched between the latest Roger Ebert effort and, inexplicably, a half-dozen books on Audrey Hepburn (did I miss something recently?), and sitting out prominently on a shelf at the eye level of a five-year-old certainly caught me by surprise. I’m not demanding they don’t carry such things — I readily encourage that they do — I was just surprised to find it there, since they tend to only carry bestsellers in most categories, or the latest in mainstream-safe blather.
Reading the book at home has proven an exhaustive effort. Beginning with William Seabrook’s seminal zombie travel opus The Magic Island, the book that made zombie talk an American fad in the early part of the 20th century, Russell breaks down each film in his narrative in such detail and with attention to their metaphorical implications that it becomes almost necessary to stop reading and review the actual films oneself before continuing forward with one’s reading. I have seen White Zombie a handful of times, but I still found myself revving up my copy to make sure I had not seen a different film than the one of which Russell speaks. Suffice to say that Russell has turned out to be a very astute guide through most of the movies thus far, and while the short film reviews might come up a little more scant on detail than I wished, Russell is not one to give an easy pass to a film just because he is a hardcore fan of the subgenre. It turns out Russell is much like me: deeply in love with a couple handfuls of these films, and more than willing to sternly (though sometimes lovingly) critique those that fall short of his standards. Also, kudos must be given to Russell for including any number of zombie-oriented pornographic titles in his book, which helped toward showing me that he has left no stone unturned in his search for as many zombie films as possible, even if it might have something icky underneath it. One cannot be afraid of the icky when discussing zombies. Or if one orders a book on them for a Disney-locked bookstore. (Either their book buyer knows full well what he is doing, or he/she doesn’t haven’t a clue. Or maybe both.)
So, now I have a book in my library about zombie films, and I am happy with this. My fears of being trapped inside a book by an uncritical zombie nut have abated. Most of my friends, though, will have zero interest in seeking out or even paying for this book, but I didn’t write this review for them. It is directed at two of my friends specifically. Andrea and Aaron: this book is for you. Don’t delay in its immediate purchase.
Shouldn’t be hard to find… The dead do walk the earth, and they don’t buy books like this. They buy Tim LaHaye books and Celine Dion CDs…