5 October, 2011

Hunting the Dead

Interview with V.M. Zito author of The Return Man

By Dan Collacott

There has been some awesome zombie fiction produced in recent years, with authors such as Max Brooks, David Moody, Robert Kirkman and J.L. Bourne bringing us undead apocalyptic peril of epidemic quality. Soon to be added to this list is author V.M. Zito with his upcoming novel The Return Man. A story of a bounty hunter returning the undead to their loved ones, we at LF were privileged to get to talk to the author himself and get an inside scoop on his upcoming book and of course we love a good excuse to talk all things horror and zombie! 

Tell us about The Return Man, the setting and characters?

The Return Man takes place four years after a zombie apocalypse has torn the United States in half. In the West are the Evacuated States, a barren wasteland where only the walking dead roam. In the East are the Safe States, where survivors gather and a crippled America still functions as best it can. 

The main character of The Return Man is Henry Marco, the only man alive in the Evacuated States. Marco is a professional corpse tracker hiding out in Arizona. Back in the Safe States, grieving survivors can’t bear the thought of their dead friends and family wandering forever as zombies out West, and so they hire Marco to track these zombies down and mercifully return them to the grave. It’s a dangerous job, of course, but Marco understands the peace it offers survivors. That’s because one of the zombies he’s hunting is his own dead wife, Danielle.

How did you come up with the concept?

The concept came to me in bits and pieces over time. It didn’t really begin as an attempt to write a novel. More like idle thoughts, such as “All these zombies in movies, did some of them have families who survived?” which led to “Wouldn’t that be horrible to know your wife was out there somewhere as a zombie?”

That sparked the basic idea, that you could hire a professional to go hunt down your wife’s zombie. Dawn of the Dead had long ago hinted that zombies might gravitate to “places that were important to them,” so I wanted to explore that idea further – that you could use insight into the living person to find their zombie.

The character Marco came last, but that was the pivotal moment. I had the premise of the professional corpse tracker, but what made this guy interesting?

And then I realized: “He’s great at tracking corpses, but for some reason he can’t find the one single corpse that really matters to him — his wife. And it drives him mad, because in theory he knew her better than anybody else in the world, and he should know all the places that her zombie might have wandered.” That’s when everything came together, and I knew I wanted to write this book.

Are any of the characters and events based on you? Or your real life experiences?

I’m sure my wife or friends will recognize some of Marco’s agnosticism, wise-assery and cynicism as similar to my own. But on a larger scale, I think my real life experiences going through a divorce (to wife #1) helped shape the novel’s soul. Sometimes I’ll be reminded of a happy moment I'd shared with my ex-wife, or some special place we went together. After you’re divorced, it can be hard to know how to file those memories — are they still good, or bad, or bittersweet? Divorce changes the landscape of our lives, not just the terrain ahead but behind us as well. Do those memories still have any special meaning to me or to my ex-wife, even though we’re no longer together? In a way, that same question is crucial to the character Marco as he searches for his dead wife Danielle.

Also, Wife #2 just read this over my shoulder and wants me to add that I am not secretly still in love with Wife #1.

If someone offered you money to go back into a zombie-infested zone to retrieve something or someone would you do it?

My first instinct is to say “No effin’ way.” But then again, in my current life, I work in advertising – and that means I’ll pretty much agree to anything for money.

Do you think what happens in The Return Man could ever happen in real life?

I think the torment felt by a survivor, knowing that a loved one is out there as a zombie, would be a very human reaction, very real. In all good horror there is an element that overlaps our humanity. In the real world, our grief compels us toward closure, no matter how horrible. The need to know our beloved’s final resting place is universal. Parents of long-missing children need the truth, even if the truth is a body in the woods. Military families need proper burials. And in The Return Man, survivors need to know that their loved ones are finally at peace.

What made you get into horror writing?

I’ve been writing horror ever since I was a kid. My first “book” was written when I was six, and it was entitled Death Lurks in the Swamp. It was the illustrated story of a doglike monster that devoured people who foolishly went for walks in a swamp. (The rights for that book are still available, if anybody’s interested.)

To this day, I love horror and science fiction – for the chills and thrills, of course, but also because I believe that both genres have the potential to accomplish something great. Blood and ghosts and screams and monsters don’t just scare us. They also allow us to reflect on what it means to be human.

Do you prefer rage zombies or the more traditional Romero shuffling zombies?

Fast zombies are fun, adrenaline-fueled terror... slow zombies are creepy, spine-tingling dread. I enjoy both for different reasons, but I’d have to say that my preference is the classic Romero model. I’m a purist in that sense.

Incidentally, part of my initial motivation for writing The Return Man was to satisfy my own preference for classic zombie fiction. As a zombie fan, I was getting a little bored by the books I was reading, by the well-worn formula: a motley group of survivors battle the undead as they try to reach some safe haven. But the problem was, whenever I’d read a book where the author tried to mix things up in some unique way – the zombies are interdimensional beings or aliens or have psychic powers – it just didn’t feel right to me, as if the zombies weren’t really zombies. I think I’m like a lot of fans. We want more of what we love, but at the same time, we want it to be different. So I wanted to do something that felt fresh, yet remained faithful to the Romero mythos I love. I wanted a new twist, a new plot, a new story objective. The Return Man is my attempt to answer that call.

What is your favourite zombie film or book of all time?

Favourite book is easy: World War Z is hands-down the best zombie book ever.

As for my favourite movie, unfortunately I have to be less committal. Let’s call it a 4-way tie between Dawn of the Dead ’78 and Day of the Dead and Return of the Living Dead and Shaun of the Dead, all of which impacted me tremendously.

Do you think Zombieland, Walking Dead series, World War Z (film) and many others have made zombie films into a more mainstream genre?

Walking Dead definitely brought zombies to the mainstream and grabbed new fans – millions of television viewers who previously never would have plunked down cash to see a zombie movie in a theater. I love that. On the other hand, I’m curious to see how World War Z handles itself as a film, if they’ll take a more linear approach to the concept in order to please a mainstream audience. Frankly, I hope they don’t. The beauty of the book is that it’s so many fragmented perspectives of the same world-shattering event, without the obligation of a “plot.” I don’t want World War Z to be Independence Day with zombies.

Do you think the Dawn of the Dead remake raised the bar?

Hmmm, let’s put it this way: I really enjoyed Dawn of the Dead ’04, and I think Zach Snyder is an awesome filmmaker. Zombie fans needed that movie. I’m not sure the film itself sets a creative bar as high as 28 Days Later – but I do believe its greatest contribution to the subgenre was its box office success, which told moviemakers that people want zombie movies. If Snyder’s movie had tanked, there’s a long list of subsequent movies and books that probably don’t get produced (including The Return Man). So it was certainly a landmark.

What is your favourite horror film of all time?

Discounting classic zombie movies, this would be a 9-way tie between Evil Dead 2, The Shining, The Blair Witch Project, Ringu, 28 Days Later, The Haunting (1963), The Thing, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Jaws. 

Would you like to turn The Return Man into a film or TV series?

I’d originally conceived Marco’s adventures to be very episodic, perfect for a television series. Each week, Marco takes another contract, finds another corpse. I started writing The Return Man long before Walking Dead was even being considered for TV, so I definitely had aspirations to be the first zombie show. I’d also love to see The Return Man as a graphic adaptation someday, for the same reasons — I think the concept has a great built-in potential for serial storytelling.

What is more likely an alien invasion or a zombie apocalypse?

They both have an equal 100% certainty of occurring on December 21, 2012.

If you had to cross a zombie infested town and had the choice of a machete or shotgun to carry what would you choose?

I’d go with the boomstick. I enjoy the flexibility of being able to 1) shoot a fast zombie or 2) turn the gun around and bash a slow zombie’s skull with the barrel.

Have you ever had a supernatural experience?

No, but I’d love one. Then maybe I’d be less scared of dying.

Can you give any previews or spoilers about what readers can expect from the book, will there be sequels?

I think readers can expect a good mix of dread and creepiness, zombie action and gore, and emotionally rich characters that make you give a damn how it all turns out. Also, I’m hoping that some Horror Awards Show gives out a “Best Death by Zombie” for 2012 because maybe The Return Man has a shot. As for possible sequels, I definitely have a direction in mind – for the next novel as well as smaller-sized “episodes” of Henry Marco’s corpse-tracking adventures. But first things first – I hope you all enjoy The Return Man. Thanks for checking it out!

Click here to read the first two chapters of the book itself!