I’ve read an underground bunker full of zombie books in my day: some of them good – many of them dreadful. Many of them have blindly followed the path set down by George Romero in “Night of the Living Dead” – slow shambling zombies intent on eating brains – without even attempting to advance the genre. Many of them have been nothing more than poorly written scenes of blood and gore strung together by tenuous plotlines and cardboard thin characters. Nary a one of them has been for young adult readers. I’m happy to say, “The Undertakers: Rise of the Corpses” is none of those things.
I challenge you to walk the aisles of your favorite bookstore today without tripping over the mountains of young adult Vampire books that have flooded the market. Good vampires, bad vampires, teenaged vampires, tragically misunderstood vampires – it’s all a bit much. What has been missing is a serious (and seriously good) young adult zombie novel to even the odds a bit. Ty Drago has delivered just that with “The Undertakers”.
Drago takes a dash of “They Live”, stirs in a handful of zombie mythology from Brian Keene’s “The Rising”, and finishes it off with the young adult appeal of “Percy Jackson”. The end result is a zombie story for the whole family. (Well, most of the family – I don’t think my 10 year-old son will be reading it this year. These are zombies after all – decaying flesh tends to fall off of them at inopportune moments.) It is a story and cast of characters that is both familiar and, at the same time, utterly original.
Will Ritter is a normal 12 year-old living just outside of Philadelphia. At least he thinks he’s normal. All that changes one day when he realizes some of the people around him are not what they appear to be. Where everyone else sees the assistant principal or the science teacher, Will sees the walking corpse of a zombie. (Well, not zombies exactly. As one character reminds Will later – “Don’t call ‘em zombies. Zombies are slow and stupid. These things aren’t. You want to remember that.”)
Called “Corpses”, they appear normal to almost everyone, but are in fact entities wearing the bodies of the dead like a suit of clothing. They hold down regular jobs and live regular lives right here among us. They are also slowly infiltrating our society and looking to destroy the human race.
Will soon discovers there are others like him, others who see the Corpses for what they really are. All of them are under 17 years old and have come together to form The Undertakers – a group dedicated to finding others like them, and stopping the advance of the Corpses. As Will learns more about the group it becomes clear they are the only thing standing between the unsuspecting public and the destruction of our way of life.
It’s clear this story is aimed squarely at young adult readers. That’s perfectly fine with me. As I said earlier, why should tweens miss out on the fun that is zombie fiction? What makes the book special is that I, who haven’t been in my tweens since last century, also found great enjoyment in reading the story. (I devoured the book in just less than 3 days.) Drago writes with an age appropriate tone, but one that is not condescending to older readers – the story is still, after all, a robust exploration of the genesis of a zombie invasion of our world. The drama is real, the action is real, and the plot holds up whether you are 15 or 45 or 105.
For those wishing to dive one layer below the zombie invasion, there is a subtle yet effective examination of young adulthood. It can be a scary and tumultuous time. The transition between childhood and adulthood is fraught with the unknown – and to the person experiencing it, it often feels like they are the only person in the world who has ever had to deal with those issues.
“The Undertakers” provides a great parallel for that journey. The Undertakers have assumed the responsibility of the first (and only) line of defense against the Corpses. No one knows what they are doing; no one even understands the threats they are facing. They are truly alone in their quest – no guidebooks, no do-overs, no rules. It’s a powerful metaphor for what tweens and teens face every day.
The job of facing the great unknown that is adulthood is often overwhelming, frightening, and lonely. Getting zits may not be as life threatening as being chased by zombies – but to a 13 year-old navigating his or her way through the turbulent social waters of middle school, it can be just as daunting. Younger readers will find a kindred soul in Will as he learns that the world doesn’t work exactly the way he always thought it did. I know I can remember some of those same feelings from my adolescence.
Whether you look for commentary on growing up, or just a good zombie adventure, “The Undertakers” is an incredibly fun story to read. Drago has done a superb job of creating a comfortably livable world for his zombie tale, and left the door wide open for the inevitable sequel (or two, or three, or seven.) He has a polished style and comfortable prose that made reading the book a pleasure. It is a welcome addition to zombie literature and it is a great foundation on which to build. There is a lot of room to roam in the world of “The Undertakers”. I can only hope that Drago takes full advantage of it and shares with us stories from every nook and cranny.
According to his website, Drago still holds down a day job and pursues writing as passion. Based on this novel, I would say it’s more of a calling. I can only hope “The Undertakers” gets the attention it deserves. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. You won’t be disappointed – and you’ll be doing your part to help Ty Drago quit his day job one day. (Not to mention saving someone, like yourself, the pain of having to read another vampire novel…)
My favorite words from “The Undertakers: Rise of the Corpses”
He always sparred with Sharyn because pitting the enormous boy against anyone else would have been, in Sharyn’s words, “like siccing Shrek on one of the seven dwarves.”
It takes maturity to spot the immaturity in others.
All of them were dead. All of them wrapped in the stolen bodies of men and women who had once been real people with real lives. These were invaders, yes. And killers. But they were thieves too. They stole dignity.
© 2011, The Word Zombie. All rights reserved.