After an agonising year-long wait, we finally know who Negan's beloved baseball bat 'Lucille' took down in Season 7 of The Walking Dead. But as the fans of the comics and of Jay Bonansinga's marvellous New York Times bestselling novel series will know, there's still so much more horror to come.
Here, Jay looks back at one of his earliest memories of terror: the legendary ending to George A. Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead...
[HERE BE SPOILERS!]
* * * *
It snuck up on me as a kid. 1968. Living in small town Illinois, the riots of the democratic convention only a hundred miles away, and yet all that social upheaval a million light years from my Mayberry childhood. I will never forget sneaking into the Palace Theater in downtown Peoria that summer. I was nine years old, and unprepared for what I was about to see as the lights went down and those first images of Evans City cemetery appear on the screen.
A little known TV commercial director named George Romero would change the face of horror that summer with his mongrel indie ghoul fest Night of the Living Dead. Coming out of nowhere, made by a group of Pittsburgh hipsters, the movie not only took the viewing public by surprise -- practically carving out a mission statement for all zombie stories to come -- it changed this writer's life.
The ending did it for me. All through the movie, I had been rooting for the only morally decent, smart, strong, heroic character played by a little known African American actor named Duane Jones. Under siege for most of the film in a small rural farmhouse, Jones valiantly fights off the onslaught of both zombies and cowardly humans with verve and vigor.
Then comes the final scene. A local posse under the direction of the sheriff arrives to save the day. The undead are vanquished all around the farmhouse, and it looks as though Jones will escape the ordeal. Thank God, somebody will emerge unscathed!
The sheriff sees movement behind one of the farmhouse's windows.
"Okay, hit him in the head," orders the sheriff in his pork pie hat and bandolier of bullets slung casually over his rat pack sport coat. He assumes Jones is another ghoul. "Right between the eyes."
The other man, a townie in a windbreaker with a Winchester rifle, takes aim at the farmhouse window and BOOM! We see our only hope -- the solitary hero -- whiplashing backward, a direct headshot, dead before he hits the floor. I was stunned, frozen in my seat, my Raisinets spilling all over my lap.
It was a scene that not only stole my virgin innocence as a filmgoer, it also taught me as a budding writer that horror stories should go all the way. Horror stories should be brutal and honest, and have a rich subtext. That posse that killed Duane Jones's hero could have easily been a group of redneck racists in Mississippi in the Freedom Summer of 1964 who killed the civil rights workers Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner. Romero has claimed that Jones's character being black had been a random coincidence, but it nevertheless became a powerful benchmark for me.
I try to live up to Romero's seminal work in every sentence I write in The Walking Dead books. I owe it to the fans, and I owe it to the great Duane Jones.
Jay Bonansinga is the author of six New York Times bestselling novels set in the universe as The Walking Dead comics but featuring brand new characters (as well as some old favourites) and all new terrors.
The sixth novel, Search and Destroy, has just been released in paperback and digital.