Splatterpunks, Expanded Universes and 'Book of the Dead'
Splatterpunk is a term that gets thrown around casually but isn't often clarified. It sprung out of the 1980s when “punk” was the term of choice, catching on with William Gibson's cyberpunk craze and rolling forward with K.W. Jeter’s coining of “steam-punks” in a 1987 letter to Locus magazine. While those two, and others, have kept ahold of certain niche fandoms, splatterpunk's popularity dwindled in the late 1990s. The genre, defined by one of its forefathers David J. Schow, is characterized by a visceral, often gory, depiction of taboo. More importantly there’s a sense of Grand Guignol fun as, according to David Carroll in the 1995 essay “Splatterpunk: The Grossery List”, “the outrageous is often presented with a sense of glee”. A stark example of the craze came from John Skipp and Craig Spector, the collaborative pair known for the classic The Light at the End (1986), with their 1989 zombie anthology Book of the Dead. Certainly the first of its kind, it is also a fascinating look at an early example of a famous intellectual property’s expanded universe, in this case Night of the Living Dead (1968).
The term "expanded universe" is usually associated with Star Wars. Starting with the first spin-off book, Splinter of the Mind's Eye in 1978, and continuing even after the 2014 reboot post-Disney acquisition, there are books, comic books, video games, board games, and radio plays ad infinitum, and the same can be seen of many other IPs. Expanded universes not only continue the stories of popular main characters but also tackle tertiary characters, abstractions, scenarios and locations the source material only hint at, all while operating within already established parameters. Star Trek is an easy comparison, with its first spin-off book, a children's novel called Mission to Horatius, published in 1968. While it's common for popularity to breed this treatment, it was rare to be on such a scale before the 1990s and almost non-existent when it came to the horror genre, especially the then nascent zombie sub-genre.
In 2015, everyone loves zombies. After 2002's 28 Days Later, the sub-genre saw a renaissance that has only gained momentum, from the Dawn of the Dead (2004) remake to Shaun of the Dead (2004), from Zombieland (2009) to World War Z (2013) and everything in-between, but most importantly the juggernaut that is The Walking Dead television series, itself having sprung out of a different medium, comic books. But this wasn't always the case.
Of course director George Romero created the modern conception of zombies with his Dead trilogy, starting with Night and continuing into the original Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). Unfortunately, aside from the drastic reimagining that is The Return of the Living Dead (1985), by 1989 these ghouls from beyond the grave had all but decayed at the mainstream box office. A generation of writers that had grown up on the wave that Romero started, however, were pushing back against a backlash of conservative Reaganism that permeated the '80s. Enter: splatterpunk.
Living up to the punk in their names as a ‘half comical, half serious reply to the hip arrogance and shrewd calculation that rocketed the word “cyberpunk” to genre wide prominence’, according to Lawrence Person in his landmark 1988 article “The Splatterpunks: The Young Turks at Horror’s Cutting Edge”, these young and hungry writers were raging against the restrictions placed on them. The movie industry in particular was reeling, with the MPAA putting a magnifying glass over horror movies. After more than a decade-long golden age of slasher films, from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) through to a second wind with the first A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), it’s easy to point out the moment when fingers starting pointing: Friday the 13th Part VI (1986). Try and watch it without noticing the jarring edits when it comes to the kills, with the blood reduced from buckets to thimbles compared to earlier entries. This would only continue in subsequent sequels and could be seen in other series, with A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989), ironically with a first draft by Skipp and Spector, infamously cut to ribbons, while the likes of Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990) and Hellraiser III (1992) suffered the same fate. The gross-out slasher would go into hibernation for a few years, but not before the rebels took one last charge at the barricades.
This was the age of the household name author, with Stephen King being synonymous with scares. Perhaps the man himself can carry a little of the blame, as his popularity couldn’t help but bring attention to what had been going on under the radar. The likes of Dean Koontz and Anne Rice had been slowly moving their way up into the public consciousness as well, but the splatterpunks were a whole new breed with their black leather, tattoos and heavy metal bands. Clive Barker, himself an icon of terror, conjured the splatterpunks into being with his Books of Blood (1984), stories that were, says Person, “highly original, powerfully imaginative, and yes, extremely graphic.” Along with Barker, Person continues, a fellow proto-splatterpunk was S.P. Somtow, who with his little-known Vampire Junction, a novel about a 12-year-old vampire rockstar (predating Rice’s The Vampire Lestat by a year), mixed “violence with explicit (usually perverse) sex to create a shocking and heady concoction."
The splatterpunks took the long-gestating connection between punk rock and horror, seen with the Ramones’ “Gabba Gabba Hey” tribute to Freaks (1932) and the Misfits’ appropriation of the Crimson Ghost, that reached its apotheosis with The Return of the Living Dead and gave it a little push, culminating in Book of the Dead. When it comes to the anthology, there’s a mixture of reverence for the past and outside-the-box divergences that are uncharacteristic of most expanded universes. Certainly the Foreword and stamp of approval by George Romero would suggest its canonicity in relation to the director’s Dead series, but the rules are only obeyed to a point. Those rules, so well known now, include the recently dead having returned to life due to a returned space probe from Venus exploding in the atmosphere and bombarding the Earth with radiation. They can only be killed by being shot in the head, retain little to none of their previous intelligence although they may instinctively go through the motions of previous practices (like going to the mall) and their bite will kill you, although everyone is already infected and will rise with a taste for human flesh after expiring.
Take, for instance, the first story in the anthology, “Blossom” by David J. Schow (under the pseudonym Chan McConnell), that adheres to the rules relatively closely while still reveling in the hyperbolic grue expected of splatterpunks. An asthmatic prostitute is mid-coitus with a client when he suddenly changes the rules. He’s into a bit of kink, straps a gimp mask on her and zips the mouth shut. She doesn’t know that he’s done this before and it doesn’t always work out for the women with some of them having asphyxiated, herself now included. The client, however, is also in for a bit of a surprise, as he’s not aware the zombie apocalypse is in full swing. When he delves into a bit of necrophilia the prostitute bites into him in more ways than one, using her vaginal muscles to crop off his manhood. A macabre twist, but it certainly abides by the dogma established within Romero’s macro-story.
Contrast that against Stephen King’s “Home Delivery”, which runs fast and loose with the mythology. Ironically King, not a splatterpunk but certainly a progenitor, had the closest ties to George Romero, having written the screenplay for Creepshow (1982), directed by the latter, but perhaps he pays tribute to his friend by playing against expectations. “Home Delivery” follows Maddie Pace, a young widow who is five-months pregnant when the dead start returning to life. She lives on a small island named Gennesault off the coast of Maine, keeping her and its occupants relatively insulated, but they do witness in the media what is happening to the rest of the world. That includes saber rattling between the United States and the Soviet Union (changed to China when reprinted in 1993’s Nightmares & Dreamscapes) leading to a joint space mission to confront Star Wormwood, a giant mass of writhing creatures hovering over a hole in the Ozone Layer. These worms are the cause of the outbreak, not radiation, and zombies don’t die easily with damage to the brain, with one incident involving chainsaw dismemberment and the burning of bodies. In fact, Night of the Living Dead is even mentioned, explaining why this is one of the few incidences when people actually refer to the undead as “zombies”, something that is strangely avoided in most zombie fiction.
Other stories run the gamut. Richard Laymon’s “Mess Hall”, about a girl captured by a serial killer who is saved by his former victims, doesn’t push any boundaries. At one point a zombie throws a rock, but that’s not outlandish considering the little girl wielding a trowel in Night of the Living Dead and Bub firing a gun in Day of the Dead. Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Bodies and Heads” starts off with the premise from the movie, but posits that zombies can evolve. A nurse working in a Denver hospital cares for patients that shake their heads from side to side. The pestilence is snowballing but civilization still has a hold, until the patients tear their own heads off and form new faces on their torsos. Ramsey Campbell’s “It Helps If You Sing”, meanwhile, is the most drastic departure. It features door-to-door zombies, not unlike Jehovah’s Witnesses, spreading the pandemic with cassette tapes at the behest of an evangelical voodoo preacher who believes he’s facilitating the rapture. Oh, and the zombies sing.
In the years since, the Dead expanded universe has stayed relatively untouched. There have been attempts at exploiting the property: a few comic book series here and there, cashgrabs by John Russo, the co-screenwriter of the original, and the fact that the name is in public domain, but none that have garnered much attention. Romero’s own 21st century sequels, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead, are maniacally slipshod in their adherence to anything like continuity, with characters namedropping the Taliban and using modern video cameras at the onset of the contagion. Perhaps it’s the material that defies the usual hallmarks of an expanded universe, usually characterized by continuing adventures of well-worn characters. The zombie tale, by its very nature, rarely bears out survivors.
Skipp and Spector did manage to produce another anthology, Still Dead: Book of the Dead 2, in 1992. There were plans to release a third book but the petering out of splatterpunk delayed it for years. It finally sprang to life with only Skipp at the helm in 2006 as Mondo Zombie, but was lost in a sea of rotting corpses.
But Book of the Dead still stands as a rare gem. Although much of its material has been reprinted elsewhere, it’s out of print and hard to find, lending it a kind of diamond in the rough quality. It wasn’t the first book to build on this world (that was Russo’s own Return of the Living Dead in 1978 that bore no resemblance to the eventual movie) but it is the most ambitious in scope and rivets in its lack of restraint. Everyone is clearly having fun playing in a favorite movie’s sandbox, but they’re also not holding back, the way splatterpunk never held back. For that reason alone it’s worth a look.
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