In 1968, an unknown filmmaker named George A. Romero set out to make a low-budget horror film. Back then, not a single person could have imagined that it would completely change horror cinema forever. The Night of the Living Dead is the film that launched the modern zombie myth, and paved the way for such wonders as Romero’s own Dawn of the Dead and the reigning TV cable drama The Walking Dead among countless others. Now that the film has entered the public domain, Double Take, Take 2 Interactive’s comics imprint, has set out to create a series of comics based around the iconic film. I recently got a chance to chat with the writer of two of these Living Dead titles, Jeff McComsey, about the series as well as his history with zombie horror.
Nerdist: When did you first see The Night Of The Living Dead?
Jeff McComsey: I believe it was in the middle ‘90s. I rented it, and my friends and I all sat down watched it together. We actually ended up watching it twice before returning it to the video store, and I enjoyed it but I didn’t have the “sophisticated” pallet that I do now. It wasn’t until I went to college, where it became the big art school thing to watch old movies, that I fell in love with it. Now, that I have had to watch it so many times professionally, I have come to really appreciate it. Even if you get rid of all of the cultural significance of “the first zombie story” and all that stuff, Romero was a guy who did a lot with a little. So, as a guy who usually does a lot of independent projects I admire people who can do that.
N: Night of the Living Dead was one of the first major ventures into the “zombie flick” subgenre of horror, but the creatures in it are actually quite different to what we know of zombies today. What were some of your favorite aspects to play around with when writing these unusual versions of such an iconic monster?
JM: I like the reaction that people tend to have. With Romero’s other movies, everyone seems to have an idea of what these creatures are and what the zombie apocalypse is because they are living in it. What I like from the first film is that people misinterpreted what these creatures are because they have never encountered them before. There is a line from the film describing them as “a virtual army of unidentified assassins” and I just love that line so much. We actually use it quite a few times through the various first issues of the comics, simply because that iconography is just awesome. So, I just love the various reactions of these rather laid-back Western Pennsylvania folks as they run into these things.
N: How much hesitation was there to be approaching a project that involved basically taking over and building on what is seen as one of the most iconic horror films?
JM: Oh absolutely, I took the job knowing I’d have to brace for some kind of outcry, but I really haven’t seen or heard any of it if there is any.
N: Well, you’re not the Day Of The Dead remake, so I think just about anyone will be happy about that.
JM: [Laughs] Right. Honestly, I don’t think we would be the first to attempt something like this, and while no one will ever run short on anger over something like this I think most people really just want to wait and see if we **** it up.
There is a line from the film describing them as “a virtual army of unidentified assassins”…that iconography is just awesome.
N: How much collaboration was there among writers to tie the various stories that are being told in the same world about the same incident?
JM: Early on there was a bit, a lot of trial and error in getting the stories put together. One of the interesting things is about half of the stories are very much self-contained and don’t have to worry about a lot of the stuff going on around them. At that point they only really have to worry about getting the timeline correct, which was one of the main focuses of those meetings early on. There are a few stories that take place prior to the events of the film, but most take place afterward. There’s enough information in the movie where there were some key moments we had to make sure were represented. Things like what time Washington finally knows what they know, and things of that nature. Overall, it has been a pretty organic process, and we found natural places where stories may crossover with each other as we went along. The two stories that I cover, Rise and Z-Men, were a nice split of a story that is basically an adaptation of the movie because Rise follows Johnny and Barbra from the beginning. Z-Men, however, tells the story of two secret service agents looking into the incident and basically Washington’s response to it as well. It was a nice chance to get to bookend the timeline of what is going on, and the guys at Double Take have been really cool about taking care of the Story Bible for the series so we all know what is happening when and where.
N: The series takes a few liberties with the story of Romero’s film, at least in the sense of what the fate of some characters turns out to be compared to what happens in the film. When did you guys decide to build this slight shift in the story that was told?
JM: That was one of those things that kind of came from Bill’s background with Marvel Comics. [Note: Bill Jemas, former president of consumer products, publishing and new media at Marvel Comics, joined Take Two and Double Take.] He was the president of Marvel comics, and it was his sense of how when people die in comics they never really die. We had to pick our moments of where we would deviate from the film, that was really tough. There is a big moment at the end of Rise that really shifts the timeline, but outside of that we didn’t really play too much with the events of the original. We only wanted a couple moments to pick and choose.
N: Is there a plan to move the series toward the stories of Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead as well, and if so what kind of Butterfly Effect your changes to the first film could have on those stories?
JM: As far as I know right now we are not planning on doing that. We are currently just using the original Night of the Living Dead as the central event that we are dealing with.
N: While everyone knows Romero’s stories paved the way, what are these books setting out to do that will separate them from The Walking Dead and other zombie stories we see around today?
JM: The zombies that we use in the story are not like ones we have seen before, and we plan to have them developing traits and things that don’t entirely fall in line with a classic concept of a zombie. That will ultimately affect the trajectory of the story and it won’t gear so much into the same old thing that we’ve seen.
We had to pick our moments of where we would deviate from the film, that was really tough.
N: Is it an evolution, or building on the concepts already set up such as their use of tools or the fact that they seem to want to eat anything and not just people?
JM: Yeah, there is definitely something to all of that, and the eating is especially, because they are trying to regenerate, and they don’t just set out after people immediately. It was established that they only end up being violent to people after they have had violence directed at them first. A lot of these creatures is reactionary to use and how we react to them first. As time goes it will build more, but at the moment the zombies are very much just an organism that is at its beginning, and there is some sort of sentience there that we will be approaching later on. I don’t want it to seem dismissive when I say it, but we are going to really be moving past the traditional zombie as we continue on in the story.
N: Can you tell me if the individual book and story arcs building toward a larger picture, or will they be maintaining their own course as the series continues?
JM: Not all of them, but quite a few are introducing characters that will be quite pivotal later and will interconnect in the series. I know my two will both have crossover moments, and I think like two or three others as well. Most of the series are going to be doing a 3-issue miniseries at first, then there will be a big event that occurs across several of them, and then we will come back for another 3-issue miniseries after that event happens.
Overall, it has been a pretty organic process, and we found natural places where stories may crossover with each other as we went along.
N: Well, now that work is out of the way we can get to the fun stuff. Do you prefer fast zombies or slow zombies?
JM: I think the fast zombies are a little more visceral and scary in films, which I enjoy, but if I were actually in a zombie apocalypse I would prefer slow zombies. [Laughs] I’ve done a lot of World War II zombies stories, and it has proven to me that automatic weapons and slow moving zombies are just a match made in Heaven.
N: Other than Romero’s films, what else would you consider to be quintessential to the zombie sub-genre?
JM: I would have to say 28 Days Later. I think it gets overlooked a lot because it shares a similar opening to The Walking Dead, which dwarfs so much now. I remember seeing 28 Days Later in the theater and not knowing immediately it was going to be a zombie movie. It scared the **** out of me, and it pleasantly surprised me. It also really helped reintroduce zombies into the popular culture after a long while.
N: Down to the end here, Jeff. What else, other than this series, can we be seeing your name attached to?
JM: I am the editor-in-chief of a series call FUBAR which is a historical zombie anthology that we’ve done four volumes of now. The first two were World War II stories, the third was all American history, and the fourth is called “By the sword” which should be in stores in the coming weeks that goes all across world history. I have also done stories for the series, and my first stand-alone story was called Mother Russia, which I have spun-off into its own stand-alone graphic novel. That one should be in stores probably around mid-November and is up for pre-order now.
Double Take’s Night Of The Walking Dead series is on shelves now, and be sure to check out more of Jeff McComsey’s work over at his website, as well as find links for FUBAR and Mother Russia.