Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Other Return of The Living Dead

These two are not the same book. They share the same title, and they're written by the same author, but they're worlds apart in terms of content.

The edition directly above is John Russo's novelization (Arrow Books, '85) of Dan O'Bannon's screenplay of the same movie (also directed by Dan). This was one of the first movies to feature quick-footed zombies.

The original novel directly below is John Russo's literary sequel to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead; the original screenplay for that film was written by Russo and Romero.

In '74, Russo novelized Night. The novel's success gave rise to his horror writing career, a career that has run parallel somewhat with his horror directing career.

Smartly, he avoided forking out for the rights to screenplay source material by producing and/or directing films from his own literary oeuvre. These included Midnight, The Majorettes (directed by Bill Hinzman), and Heartstopper (based on his terrific vampire novel The Awakening).

My favorite (if you can call it that) Russo movie is Midnight. Starring the great Lawrence Tierney, and with bit turns by John Amplas (Martin) and Tom Savini, this aesthetically impoverished flick does have a sleazy, grim vibe. Shot in the Pennsylvanian countryside and boasting some grotesque violence, I first saw Midnight on videocassette in '84.

My imdb review went thus:

John Russo, author of the excellent "The Awakening", "The Majorettes", "Return of The Living Dead" (both unfilmed NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD sequel and novelization of the Dan O'Bannon film) and "Midnight" novel, amongst others, is a better novelist than filmmaker. His THE MAJORETTES, a stupid cheerleader slasher flick, is bottom of the barrel garbage. MIDNIGHT, on the other hand, has a creepy, seedy tone, decent special effects, a great sleaze turn by the late Lawrence Tierney, a sexual abuse subplot and some bizarre twists. The opening, in which a "demon" (a young girl), caught in a metal trap, is beaten to death by a woman and her sons, is a real attention-grabber. Musical score by Paul McCollough is poor. Plot follows the adventures of a young, sexually abused teenager (Melanie Verlin) who runs away from home and hitches a ride with a couple of thieves. The horror rears its head when the trio enter Pittsburgh's hill country. Make-up maestro Tom Savini's special effects are very convincing -- a sudden beheading is a keeper.

It mystifies me why the Return of the Living Dead novel (story is credited to Russo, Russell W. Streiner, and Ricci Valentine) has not been filmed. It is not that it is an overlooked literary masterpiece that blew my socks off. On the contrary, it is written like a piece of dry journalism and it cribs major chunks of Night. However, it features a cast of deviant characters who are far more reprehensible than the flesheaters they're fleeing, and the violence is stomach-churning at times. On top of that, there are some great scenes in which spikes are driven through the skulls of zombies, and a nicely written bus crash opens the book.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not expressing regret that John Russo didn't direct a movie of this novel -- there are far better directors out there more capable of energizing the material. Still, I'd like to see the book filmed. With Romero still turning out Dead flicks, it surprises me that he hasn't tapped this material.

I feel that Russo is a much better novelist than filmmaker, and the subjects he has tackled have vibrated with a great deal more originality.

Bloodsisters ('82), published in the US by Pocket Books, involves a coven of deadly women (thirteen of them!) and has a strong, supernatural slant.

Cover art has been "borrowed" for a great deal of movie poster art.

Living Things is an expansion of themes introduced in Russo's Voodoo Dawn novella, and marries the drug-flooded, crime-ridden Miami of DePalma's Scarface to Haitian voodoo lore. The book is as much a crime thriller as a horror novel, and Russo wisely keeps the undead at bay for a large portion of the story.

The Aldous Huxley quote -- Maybe this world is some other planet's hell -- kicks off the first part.

This New English Library (NEL, '83) edition of Midnight came three years after the American release. The reference on the cover to the Russo film must have puzzled many outside the US because the film had virtually no theatrical releases in foreign territories (especially English speaking ones). I guess the publisher figured that mentioning the film gave the book greater weight.

The Midnight book has a much stronger focus on religion, and, compared to the film, is intelligently structured.

Inhuman (Pocket Books, '86), is one of Russo's best novels (alongside The Awakening), and would make a great movie. It begins as an action novel, and turns into something that is tonally akin to The Hidden, Snakes on a Plane, and, of course, Night of the Living Dead and Umberto Lenzi's Nightmare City.

Excellent cover art is by Lisa Falkenstern.

Dario Argento and Jess Franco would have had fun with this tale of a disfigured ballet dancer who destroys her enemies by ripping them apart -- you guessed it! -- limb to limb.

Not terribly involving, the book is dedicated to "Jutec Kasamon and the Kasamon Ballet Company".

Like most artists, the work of John Russo has been uneven, but I can not fault his dedication to the genre, or his desire to shock for a living.

Imbd lists his next venture as Escape From The Living Dead with Kane Hodder.

10 comments:

  1. So freaking interesting, I had no idea John Russo had such a prolific career as a horror novelist! I am now tempted to search those out...specially that sequel to Night of the Living Dead.

    Im glad I subscribed to this blog!

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  2. Good to see a new blog!

    I'll have to check out MIDNIGHT. Sounds my cuppa.

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  3. I met John Russo at Chicago's Weekend of Horrors and he was the sweetest little man. He had most of his books for sale, but wanted top dollar for them, so I couldn't indulge, even tho those covers kick total ass.

    He was at a table with George Kosana ('Their dead, they're all messed up!') and they bickered like the odd couple and Kosana told me a dirty joke, which I can't remember as of now.

    It was a neat experience.

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  4. jervaise brooke hamsterJanuary 16, 2010 at 8:11 AM

    Judith O`Dea drives me wild, whenever i watch the original "Night Of The Living Dead" i have the same fantasy: i save her from a zombie and she blows me and then i save her from another zombie and she lets me bugger her.

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  5. The novel's success gave rise to his horror writing career, a career that has run parallel somewhat with his horror directing career.

    Hillarious!
    I have to check out more of his book now then.

    Great piece!

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  6. I had planned to make a post about Russo, too. With my german editions and some originals but I still need Bloodsisters, so it will take some time. Anyway, you have a great collection...absolute my taste!

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  7. FilmConnoisseur -- thanks so much for your feedback. Yes, Russo is a fascinating figure.

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    Jenn -- I can picture Russo at a table because I saw him at one at a Fango convention in Burbank. I chatted to him, but I feel he'd be friendlier to women.

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    J -- much appreciated. He's worth looking into.

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    Missesgrim -- sorry to pip you at that post. But wouldl ove to read your take on Russo, and seeing some German covers would be a hoot.

    Yes, our tastes mesh for sure.

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  8. I had been looking for Russo's original Return of the Living Dead novel for years. I thought I'd found it in the late 80s but it turned out to be the movie novelization pictured above. Same title, same author, I can't be the only one who made this mistake. Complicating things further the book cover doesn't carry any of the artwork or logos from the film's ad campaign and I'm pretty sure that zombie on the cover is not in the movie. Years later I tracked down the original Return of the Living Dead novel and reading it was such a chore that I only got half-way through it. Had I not been waiting years to read this book I doubt I would have gotten that far.

    I got hooked on Russo's novels during college in the early 80s. The Majorettes was a pretty good read as was Midnight. I remember being surprised how dark the material was (Midnight's ending was shockingly downbeat). I didn't care for the film adaptation of either book. Awakenings was probably his best novel and the film version wasn't half bad. I don't remember much about Inhuman other than some mediocre writing with Russo making the mistake of telling rather than showing. I lost my taste for Russo's writing eventually. Not sure if he changed or I did.

    Thanks for a great post.

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  9. Matt -- you're right. The zombie on the cover of Russo's novelization is not in the O'Bannon movie.

    I enjoyed Majorettes, too; I've liked Russo the novelist more than Russo the filmmaker.

    My interest in Russo swings.

    Thank you for stopping by.

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