Thursday, June 23, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Book of the Dead

Book of the Dead
Writer: Jamie Russell
Published 2005

Jamie Russell's Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema, is quite possibly the greatest zombie companion and film compilation in the history of the genre. Every iconic film that covers the grotesque walking corpses is covered in this book, ranging from its black and white voodoo origins to the magnificent resurgence brought on by George Romero and Lucio Fulci. The book has everything that any zombie fan would want and more. Russell also provides some amazing international poster art and lobby cards, displayed in all their colorful glory. You can tell that a lot of love went into creating this historical encyclopedia on cinema's most enduring mob of creatures, the zombie.

Russell first delves into the rich history of the genre, tackling the haitian origins that ignited tales of voodoo and reanimated corpses. He follows the flow of time on how these other worldly myths morphed into the stories that would later be told through the medium of the silver screen. Contrasting real life accounts of explorers trekking the Caribbean, Russell brings to light a rather straight foreword and clearly understood hierarchy of the zombie's birth and inevitable consumption of the masses. These wild stories would spark an interest that would spread across the globe and span ages on its hellish course to entertain the world over with tales of death and black magic.

His comparisons with Haiti, depression, and race and the way they effect the stories that were being told with the films of those times, are quite phenomenally addressed, giving the viewer another layer of explanation onto why we are so drawn to this disturbing genre of filmmaking. The reflections of society throughout the years and the resulting effects that these changes in the cultural span of things have birthed, is rather remarkable to have laid out in front of you and Russell does an excellent job in leading us through the history of it all. His writings and well thought out explanations provide a sort of cinematic road map into the inner workings of how these early zombie films were created the way they were.

I especially loved the sections dedicated to Val Lewton's films and the great deal of class that he brought to the genre. Russell focuses a great deal on comparing the highs and lows of the zombie film, never leaving a particular movement or stylistic choice from the equation as he gives us the whole picture on how the zombies popularity raised and lowered throughout its long run.

Russell gives us the blueprints to the roller-coaster ride that is the zombie film, by showing us the specific circumstances and the added elements that injected new life into the genre just as it seemed to wear out its welcome. Each time the genre waned, a new filmmaker or a different twist regenerated the concept of the walking dead, proving the cult stories staying power and public interest. These are all laid out beautifully by Russell as he goes over the various inclusions to the genre like the addition of Science Fiction elements to the invasion of the italian splatter scene.

There's also a great deal of coverage on the Romero years, showing the effects of that low budget effort in 1968 called Night of the Living Dead and the resulting ripple effect that helped stage one of zombie film's most impressive comebacks. Russell starts with the original Night of the Living Dead and then branches off to Romero's Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and Land of the Dead, sighting the director's correlations between society's political and social problems with the plague of the zombie menace. The chapters covering Romero's work are just outstanding, giving great detail on the contributions that the horror master has given to the genre and the overall effect he has had on the zombie movie since introducing us to Romero's zombie rule of thumb.

Moving further into the rich history of the zombie film, Russell covers the italian surge of splatter films that featured the walking dead as their main antagonist. Never holding back, much like the italian films he covers, Russell gives us some tremendously gory and vividly violent collages of movie stills to accompany his writing. The layout of these photo segments are simple, yet highly effective, focusing solely on the demented and decrepit nature of the genre. Some of my favorite spreads include the works of Lucio Fulci, depicting his highly surreal and violent zombie films, The Beyond and City of the Living Dead. The additions of these full page spreads in all of their colorful glory is greatly appreciated by this reader and gives us another reason to appreciate the visceral power of the genre.

Rounding out the book, Russell covers the boom of the do it yourself, camcorder movement, that gave birth to the independent zombie circuit. Examining the highs and lows of the era, Russell plunges into the thick of it leaving no stone unturned on his quest to best review the history of the zombie film as a whole. The low budget movement is a rather important moment in zombie cinema and Russell gives a respectable overview on the breadth of films that sprung from this resurgence of independent fan efforts. At the same time he tackles the Hollywood side of the subject, where action takes center stage and production values overshadow the more contemplative nature of the genre. It's interesting to see these two total opposites coexist at the same moment in time, but that is the real amazing thing about the zombie film and its wild historical ride through the cinema.

The closing portions of the book are dedicated to Russell's Zombie Filmography that consists of a comprehensive 80 page A to Z guide to the most significant zombie films ever made. Each entry is given a small write up that summarizes the film, focusing on the highlights of the movie. It's a wonderful way to end the book and I often find myself, from time to time, thumbing through the list of films, appreciating the great gamut of zombie goodness that there is in the world.

Jamie Russell's Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema, really is the complete history of zombie cinema. It overviews all the factors that lead the genre to where it is today, allowing us to have an even greater appreciation for how far the zombie film in general has come. From its voodoo origins to its flesh eating gorefests, the zombie film is a beast of a genre that never seems to get its fill. Jamie Russell encapsulates all the things we crave for in the genre and allows us to follow the morphing of the walking dead throughout the years.

Splattered with amazing illustrations, movie stills, and countless facts, this book is the end all best damned zombie film compilation I've ever come across. The addition of the zombie filmography at the end of the book just makes it that much more complete, allowing us to really revel in the films we love so much. I demand that every zombie fan own a copy of this tremendous book, because it really is worth every damn penny. Pick it up today! 

5 out of 5 stars      The Definitive History of the Zombie Film!


  1. I've got a few books on zombie movies, Jay, and I this is the best one alongside Jay Slater's EATEN ALIVE! ITALIAN CANNIBAL AND ZOMBIE MOVIES. BOOK OF THE DEAD is a slight bit ahead of it as it is more in depth on the subject of zombieism, but the Slater book is amazing, too, and has some guest reviews by famous italian horror personalities.

  2. I'll have to pick up Eaten Alive! for sure. You can never have too many zombie movie books. Starting search now. Thanks for the tip.