First published back in 1978, John Russo’s novel ‘Return Of The Living Dead’ formed the authors sequel to the classic 1968 film (with its subsequent novelisation also by Russo) entitled ‘Night Of The Living Dead’.  With ‘N.O.T.L.D.’ having been co-written by Russo, an agreement was made between George A Romero (who also co-wrote the screenplay for N.O.T.L.D.) and Russo whereby they would each follow their own paths with any subsequent sequels.  To distinguish between the two, Romero took on the ‘Dead’ title for his work (‘Dawn Of The Dead’ (1978), ‘Day Of The Dead’ (1985), ‘Land Of The Dead’ (2005) etc), whilst Russo used the ‘Return Of The Living Dead’ title for his follow-on projects. 

Russo’s sequel, was never developed into a film, however the screenplay that was written by Russo (along with Russell W Streiner and Ricci Valentine) was adapted into this 1978 novel.  Confusingly, six years later, Russo had a novel published under the same title ‘Return Of The Living Dead’ (1985) which was a novelisation of Dan O’Bannon’s 1985 slapstick-horror flick, also of the same name.  These two Russo novels have very little in common, other than the undead threat.  Here we have the original Russo sequel to Night Of The Living Dead (1974).

DLS Synopsis:
Ten years have passed since the zombie epidemic first hit
Pittsburgh.  However, when a bus overturns in a quiet American town killing all thirty-four of its passengers, fears about the diabolical events of ten years ago still lingering in the minds of the local townspeople, instigates the community to take it upon themselves to ‘spike’ the lifeless corpses from the accident - ensuring that none will return to life.  However, before they can complete their morbid task, hammering a spike through the cranium of the corpses, the emergency services arrive at the scene forcing the local townspeople to flee in fear of being apprehended for their ‘preventative measures’.

Because no further zombie outbreaks had occurred across America since the occurrence ten years ago, the incident was simply put down to a one-off occurrence and subsequently forgotten by most.  This left everyone off their guard.  However, those that had not forgotten the terrifying re-animation of the dead, were right to do so.  For now the victims of the bus accident were beginning to wake from their dead slumber.  And with their reanimation came a bloodthirsty hunger for living flesh.

Taken by surprise, those in the relative vicinity of the dead are torn apart and consumed.  However, Bert Miller together with his three daughters – Ann, Sue Ellen and the heavily pregnant Karen – take the decision to fortify their somewhat isolated rural property with boards of wood over the windows and doors.  However, Bert’s stern approach to parenting causes Sue Ellen to flee the property whilst hes sleeping. 

However it’s not long before Sue Ellen returns to the property, which is now falling under a siege of undead maunders as well as harbouring a group of newcomers - Jim Carter (wearing a state trooper’s uniform), Wade Connely (also wearing a state trooper’s uniform), a Mr Flack, and a woman simply named Angel.  The new arrivals fend off the property from the undead threat (who have already taken Bert Miller as one of their victims) and barricade themselves and the remaining Miller family into the house.

Sue Ellen’s boyfriend, Billy, arrives to the property on his motorcycle and upon seeing Sue Ellen in a semi-comatose state, escorts her upstairs to rest.  However, when she eventually wakes, she reveals that she was attacked and raped by the men before being led to the house.  At this point the charade is dropped and the newcomers show their true colours – that of rapists, thieves and murderers.  With them are two gagged and bound prisoners - the state troopers who the uniforms were stolen from.

Now completely at the mercy of the murderous thieves; the Miller sisters, Billy and the two prisoners have a lot more to worry about than the zombies pounding at the property doors.  But learning that the Miller’s have no valuables to pilfer from, the thieves decide to move on to the Kingsley Estate further up the road, where the large mansion is sure to have quite a fortune inside.  They decide to take Sue Ellen, Ann and Billy with them as prisoners, leaving the two gagged and bound cops and the heavily pregnant Karen currently in the throes of labour.  With a zombie upstairs dining on the corpse of their accomplice in crime - Angel - the three thieves, together with their prisoners, head out to the Kingsley Estate...but not before shooting one of the state troopers in the gut.

The two cops must draw upon all of their strength to free themselves from their current predicament and avoid becoming more fodder for the roaming zombies.  Furthermore, Karen is in the process of giving birth to her first baby son, and the Kingsley Estate is about to be targeted by the very same murderous thieves who put them in this very predicament.  Theres some tough times ahead...

DLS Review:
Russo begins the novel in somewhat of a poetic fashion, allowing the reader to be reminded of the undead epidemic detailed in ‘Night Of The Living Dead’ (1968/1974), whilst submerging the story into a strange eerie atmosphere; almost taunting the reader with what is about to be unleashed once again.

With multiple subplots constantly on the go throughout the duration of the novel incorporating a vast array of characters, Russo has managed to produce an involved and elaborate story littered with twists and turns at each corner.  Characters come and go at the hands of the bloodthirsty zombies as well as the murderous thieves who have taken advantage of the chaos that ensued from the outbreak.  This allows for a storyline whereby the reader never really knows who will live or die at the turn of each page.  Indeed, many characters that you are sure will prevail; ultimately become further fodder for the roaming hordes of the undead.

The addition of Karen’s badly-timed labour and the survival of the baby, adds a further angle of desperation for the characters.  Once the birth is taken care of, Russo puts his foot on the accelerator from there on, delivering a non-stop thrill of a ride across the utterly dangerous locale in the desperate search for sanctuary.

True to the ideas utilised within ‘Night Of The Living Dead’ (1968/1974), Russo once again plays with the terrible reality of how easy it is to make mistakes in such traumatic circumstances; mistakes that ultimately result in the needless death of fellow survivors.  How very easy it is to mistake a living man for one of the many hordes of the undead.  The trigger-happy results reverberate throughout the book time and time again.

The suspense and edge-of-the-seat storyline speeds through a multitude of events and narrow escapes until the final showdown is played out at the Kingsley Estate.  Russo plays with the readers nerves at each possible opportunity, until the tension and suspense is brought to boiling point.

Although the storyline is elaborate and well-conceived, the characters still remain somewhat wooden and undeveloped throughout the length of the tale.  No sympathy or emotional sadness is really achieved by the writer upon the death of any of the characters.  Indeed, even the revenge on the murdering thieves doesn’t really stir up any feeling of satisfaction from the reader, other than allowing for another appropriately gruesome death.

All in all, the novel is a fast-paced zombie tale, delivering thick wedges of tension and suspense into an elaborate storyline.  No real characterisation is allowed for, but Russo does push such needs to the side, simply by bombarding the reader with action-packed twists and turns throughout the story.

The novel runs for a total of 176 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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