I hope George Romero is a billionaire by now. Having created the most recent horror myth in our culture since Mary Shelley (ok, Tod Browning) ought to earn him a percentage of every novel or film like Dana Fredsti’s Plague Town. The father of the stumbling, hungry, flash mob undead who have trouble with bullets to the head has seen his idea mutated and morphed into many a film and series; the motif is so commonplace and popular now it is almost impossible to think that it all started in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead. Quick, name another recent myth as pervasive? The Matrix? Terminator? Anne Rice doesn’t count, even though Twilight owes her way too much – and for the wrong reasons.
Along comes Plague Town: An Ashley Parker Novel (Titan, 2012, 368 Pages), not only the first in a planned trilogy but also already a movie in production (a series awaits pending sales). Dana Fredsti, novelist and former swordswoman in charge of training on Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness, manages to squeeze some fresh juice out of an idea that Buffy did better on the small screen, though the idea of smarter-than-thou teens banding together to fight off legions of those brainless, ahem, walking dead, has gotten old even in a culture where something that stays fresh for 48 hours is old school. Romero lives on; tired remixes of his myth, not so much.
So a virus hits a college town that turns the masses into zombies, annoyingly interrupting the exploits of the keggers-and-condoms crowd. Protagonist Ashley, who is – surprise – immune to the virus, sets about to do what kids have done to zombies since the late '60s – and in increasingly interesting/gross fashion...kill em all! Will she survive? Will the onslaught of demons ever stop? Will she tire of fighting and walk away? My guess is that the answers will be found in later titles of this proposed trilogy...or in any number of movies and books that have already been released in the last twenty years.
Ashley is helped in her battles by other “Wild Cards” (others who are immune to “Walker’s Flu”) including her jock teacher and other teen archetypes. There is gore galore, some of it so wet and splatter-filled it works as humor and horror, but neither the inventive deaths nor overall plot is all that inventive. Surely, the primary market for stories like this are people who will pick it apart more ruthlessly than the casual fan; they will spot scenes and dialogue and most likely shout out what film or show it reminds them of.
Granted, the Zombie genre is now so institutionalized that the trappings are not going to vary much from story to story – you need the staggering turkey shoot, etc. But Fredsti doesn’t try hard enough to inject anything new to sustain interest. She is the author of the inventive Murder for Hire: The Peruvian Pigeon, so she is capable of gripping, quirky work, just not here. Still, Plague Town may improve as the projected series advances. Fredsti will likely develop her characters further, and in getting to know them better may move them beyond the too familiar thoughts and adventures of this book. It is hard because thus far few have ventured beyond Romero in the structure of Zombie stories; fictional vampires have been around over 200 years so there has been time to approach the genre from every possible angle. Plague Town sticks to the same angle others have focused on more successfully. This series needs to get real gone for a change if it is to stand out.