The dead are walking the Earth and wiping out every living thing they can get their rotting fingers on. But these are not your shambling, herd-like zombie made popular in film, nor are they the newer running zombie full o’ rage – both of whose actions are dictated by an unexplainable need to feed on human flesh. These zombies talk, they drive, they shoot guns, they think, plan and organize – and humans are not the only species effected. These zombies are demons who enter the body of the recently deceased and are amassing an undead army under the leadership of Ob, a powerful demon hell-bent on destroying Earth. His motives are quite simple. He enjoys making God cry. Ob, along with his brethren, have a massive chip on their shoulder over being banished to the Void. Now that they are free they are gonna settle the score by destroying all of God’s creations, starting with Earth. They will not rest until they storm the Gates of Heaven itself, and Ob is able to drag God off his thrown by his beard. Because of cosmic rules as old as time itself, there isn’t a goddamn thing God can do to stop it.
City of the Dead is the sequel book in Brian Keene‘s zombie series. It picks up after the events of The Rising, the survivors of that book having traveled across five states of zombies to reach New York. While there, they find refuge in the Ramsey Towers, a skyscraper created and owned by the bazillonaire, Darren Ramsey. Within the building, a large group of survivors have found refuge, creating their own town of sorts, while the zombies continue to grow in numbers and congregate around the building. A seemingly impenetrable fortress, the survivors think they are safe from the constant attacks by the undead outside, unaware of an army of corpses working their way to their location. Led by Ob, their mission, aside from killing any living thing they come across, is to gain entry into the building and wipe out the last remnants of humanity.
So that’s the setup in this particular zombie tale. If you have not read the first book in the series, there is no need. A quick recap is done, rehashing the final moments of the The Rising. If you are a zombie fan like I am, you may get a kick out of some of the things Keene has done. Although comparison will undoubtedly be made between this book and Romero’s Land of the Dead – and rightfully so. Both detail communities living in a seemingly impenetrable fortress being run by a man with a severe Messiah complex. Both stories also have a horde of zombies being led by a more intellignet zombie.
What City of the Dead does differently than other zombie tales is what causes someone to become a zombie in the first place. Since the zombies are really just demons controlling corpses, there are some disturbing moments when they interact with the living as they absorb the memories stored in the brains of the bodies they inhabit. For example, a dead wife will become re-animated and the demon inside will communicate with the terrified husband, trying to kill him while taunting him about the unknown affair his wife was having with the neighbor. Those interactions happen frequently and are pretty cool. If the zombies come across a truck with no keys they would like to use in their armory? They simply find a demon who has inhabited a person once with the knowledge of hotwiring.
Demons don’t have a choice as to what warm-blooded mammal they inhabit, they must wait in a queue waiting for one to die before being plucked from the Void and into their new host. Since they have no choice as to what they will be placed into, they can find themselves in the corpse of a human, a rat, a bird, a Rhino, etc. This brings on an entirely new take on zombies as human survivors In City not only have to watch out for zombies patrolling the neighborhood in Humvees, they also have to watch out for flocks of zombie birds swooping down to pluck out their eyeballs or a rolling mass of squealing zombie rats cleaning the flesh off of their bones. All of this happenes, and in all its glory detail.
While the cause of people returning from the grave still retains a bit of the horror associated with zombies, especially being eaten by one, I prefer the old school zombie that had no explanation at all. It’s a lot more horrific to think that the rotting corpse shambling right outside your door is actually a dead loved one trying to eat you – not a demon. Or the fear of coming back as a zombie. The terrifying thought that you would be cursed to roam the Earth forever in search of flesh until you turn to dust and maybe, just maybe, a small part of you would realize what was happening the entire time. But with City of the Dead, neither of these are the case. The zombies are merely demons using corpses like cars, and a living human can rest easy knowing that they could simply kill themselves as they are not coming back.
But this story is about the ones who don’t take the easiest way out. This is about a group of people who decide to live and fight while being subjected to horrors never before seen by human eyes. They choose to remain pawns in a cosmic, eons-old battle between good and evil. And to that effect, City of Dead is pretty good. There are some tense moments throughout the book including an attic siege, a chase through an empty parking garage and numerous encounters in the Ramsey Towers after the shit has hit the fan and the survivors are running for their lives. There are also a lot of gory details in the book for you gorehounds. Descriptions of humans being eaten, juicy zombie damage in detail, animal attacks and even necrophilia. In City of the Dead, a captured zombie restrained in a fashion that keeps it from killing you is more than willing to let you fuck it as the act is an abomination in the eyes of God – which in turn pleases demons immensely.
My only problems with the book came from non-deliveries with set ups orchestrated by Keene. We learn what the zombies are and why they are here with hints at how they can be destroyed. Keene even touches on why the zombies must eat flesh even though they cannot absorb it the way a human body absorbs food (especially if a zombie has no stomach) but the answer is the same in both casess and it is as disatisfying as someone uttering “you gotta have faith” when asked a tough question about their religion. The feeling of being a donkey led by a dangling carrot are present throughout the final chapters as multiple rays of hope Keene throws at the survivors, rays that detail how the characters may be able to escape the zombie onslaught and even beat them, that never fully materialize.
This, along with the conclusion, made it seem as if Keene was writing as he went in the later portion of the book, bringing up questions he was unable to answer -even though he attempts to - and creating scenarios with no real idea how they would end. Add in Keene’s use of a deus ex machina in the form of a dead friend who talks to one of the survivors in a dream, explaining everything to them (and the reader) and this zombie yarn ended up stumbling on its own guts in the last half. But if you are zombie lover like myself, then by all means check out City of the Dead although I do recommend reading The Rising first, although it is not necessary.
The series introduces some interesting topics of discussion in a genre that has seen just about everything and does have some interesting takes on the existing zombie lore – even if a lot of it was done before in the original independent comic series, Deadworld. But I like my zombies when they are just re-animated corpses with no agenda aside from eating you, the reasons for them being that way vague and not compeltely understood.
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