If George Romero aficionados thought that the dismal box office performance of his last zombie flick “Survival of the Dead” a few years ago spelled the end of his franchise, they will be pleased to see that such is not the case. Romero’s brand of zombies lives on in another form, not unlike the undead characters from his movies, in “Empire of the Dead: Act One” #1, written by Romero and drawn by Alex Maleev. The comic is a genuine in-continuity sequel to the films, carrying on with the same apocalyptic backdrop and already-established notions about the undead, such as their limited memory retention and resulting instinctive behaviors. It’s business-as-usual in many ways, but it’s nonetheless an interesting story with a couple of twists that fits well with the comic book medium.
“Empire of the Dead” is fittingly set in the Empire State, and more specifically Manhattan, and begins with the arrival of a Columbia State University doctor who’s come to New York to try and conduct experiments to influence zombie behavior. She pals around with a special agent from the mayor who captures the undead, or “stinkers” as they’re called here, for gladiator-type entertainment.
The formula is the same that Romero has successfully employed in his movies; a unique group of survivors look out for their interests while trying to stay alive; and it works just as well. The pacing is excellent; Romero takes the time to introduce the two main characters and establishes their personalities and motives. There’s not as much of the horrific violence that fans might expect, but there’s enough to carry the issue and remind readers that Romero’s world is still a very dangerous and gruesome one.
Some elements of Romero’s story are somewhat derivative of other recent stories from the genre, though; the mayor of a city of survivors using the undead for entertainment purposes sounds kind of familiar to viewers who watched The Governor saga on AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” He also borrows some ideas brilliantly used by Dan Abnett in the Vertigo mini-series “The New Deadwardians.”
The story doesn’t suffer for it, however; these ideas aren’t blatantly copied verbatim; they’re tweaked to fit Romero’s story, and they work just fine as part of it. Romero’s usage of these ideas, in fact, is a far less duplicative move; those stories, and just about every other zombie story over the past few decades, have largely been centered around Romero’s own truly original ideas. In fact, it’s fascinating to see his take on these concepts, even if they have been used before.
Alex Maleev spent years grittily drawing dark and dirty New York cityscapes for Marvel in “Daredevil,” so it’s only natural that he is the artist selected to draw this series. His dim, shadowy inks are the perfect style for an urban zombie apocalypse, and his undead are truly menacing and disgusting; they even look like the smell bad, making the moniker of “stinkers” all the more believable. Colorist Matt Hollingsworth keeps the colors subdued, as they should be, except for the blood, with runs plenty red.
Near the end of the issue, Romero adds a nice surprise with a reveal that ties directly into the original “Night of the Living Dead” film, and then at the very end, throws in a surprising development that makes seeking out the second issue a given. “Empire of the Dead: Act One” #1 is pure Romero, combining what he’s best known for with a new medium that works just as well as his best films, and even better than some of lesser ones.