The Romero Strain review
With a title like that it’s no surprise to find ourselves mired in the Zombie apocalypse yet again. This time it strikes in New York as paramedic JD Nichols and Max, his German shepherd are out taking a walk on the Lower East Side. JD and Max rescue teenage Marisol from a group of hungry living dead and then take refuge in New York’s matrix of subterranean tunnels. Only problem is JD has been bitten and we all know what happens when you get a nasty case of Zombie bite.
So far I think we have been here before. At the risk of revealing more of the plot, the plague has been caused by a genetically engineered pathogen from a secret military bunker and it just so turns out that this bunker is the place that JD and his group of survivors get to hole up in.
Now this is where the author has the courage to go off piste a bit, because one off the survivors JD picks up is a military doctor who has developed a retrovirus for the Zombie plague. So JD gets his anti-zombie shot only to discover that he’s one of the few who react with the recombinant owl DNA in the retrovirus with some unfortunate side effects. Worse than that not all of the infected have become shambling walking corpses with a taste for human flesh, oh no some of them mutate in to a kind of owl-human hybrid. What’s more they aren’t cuddly and wise like Pooh Bear’s mate, not a trace of basic humanity seems to remain. They are fearsomely savage, super strong and cunning pack hunters who naturally also have a taste for human flesh.
So is The Romero Strain any good?
I thought there were some interesting ideas trying to break through here, but unfortunately the whole story gets bogged down in Alan’s very mechanical literary style. To give him the benefit of the doubt, I suspect he’s a relatively young writer who really could do with the help of an experienced editor to zip that prose up. He clearly also has an enthusiast’s knowledge of below ground New York (and US military hardware and musical theatre amongst other things) that goes far beyond what even a nerdy geek like me finds interesting.
As for the explanation of the micro-biology of zombie plague and the transmuting retrovirus, it induced an Enterprise engine room moment where the science bit (not that it had any basis in real science I’m sure) went right over my head, leaving me baffled (or bullshitted) instead of aiding my understanding. Sadly there were several parts of this book where random explanations of various phenomena tripped me over the edge to where coma is induced.
Towards the end of the novel Alan moves away from the dark claustrophobic ‘under siege in an underground bunker’ theme to a ‘under siege in a secure compound’ scenario, kind of like moving from Dawn of the Dead to a hybrid of Aliens and I am Legend. There’s lots of driving around a deserted post apocalyptic New York in military vehicles, fire fights with transmutes and gangs of survivors and shouty American militarism. On top of that there are lots of movie in-jokes and some excruciatingly unerotic sex.
Aside from JD, most of the characters are fairly shallow and stereotypical, and I found JD’s leering at the seemingly underage Marisol as she changed really quite unsavoury in the early part of the story. The conclusion is peppered with a number of unsatisfying loose ends that really could have done with some development. Perhaps Alan is laying traps for a sequel, but to me it looked more like he had become bored with the story and just wanted to shut it down.
To be fair this really isn’t my kind of horror. I’m dead bored (see what I did there) with the living dead. Sure I enjoyed the early Romero movies and a few others, but like the spreading zombie plague they are everywhere now and beyond shuffling about and eating people they are very self-limiting. My own personal theory is that the flesh crazed zombie is the new villain on the block who can be lined up and mown down, replacing the Native Americans in a PC Western refit where the white settlers form their wagons into a circle.
Getting beneath the Living Dead zombie plague there is some interesting stuff about zombies out there:
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988): Botanist /anthropologist Dennis Allan (Bill Pullman) goes to Haiti seeking the drug that induces the zombie coma. Allan gets his fix, but falls foul of the feared Haitian paramilitary the Tonton Macoute. Part political adventure part supernatural chiller it contains an excruciating bit of torture. Suffice to say chaps you will never be able to look at a wooden chair and six inch nail together again.
I Walked with a Zombie: No not the film, but one of the tracks from former 13th Floor Elevator and acid casualty Roky Erikson’s Roky Erikson and the Aliens album(1980). Lots of great stuff on here inspired by American Horror and Sci-fi including Creature with the Atom Brain and Don’t Shake me Lucifer.
The Plague of the Zombies (1966): Back in the Hammer universe wicked squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson) has zombies working his Cornish tin mine. You know its not going to end well when he secures a sample of local babe Sylvia’s blood.
Review by Simon Ball
Connect with Simon: @RealShipsCook or here.