Making your way through a post-apocalyptic world, facing off against a horde of flesh-eating zombies, and surviving it, requires the kind of courage and resilience few are able to muster. Writing a book about this well-worn trope, injecting a freshness amidst the rotting flesh, and making it work? Well, that is the stuff of heroes. With Planet Dead, Sylvester Barzey succeeds in a genre that can so easily fail. That makes him a hero in my book.
After offering us a glimpse as to how the world has descended into a zombie-feeding snack bar, Barzey introduces us to Catherine Briggs. As the lead protagonist—single-minded, and fiercely determined to survive for the sake of those she loves—Catherine is a woman of color who unashamedly stamps her authority upon the story. She is likable and strong, a character the reader can instantly get behind. Her iron indomitability echoes that of Selena in 28 Days Later, whilst the untameable devotion to her family resembles that of Adelaide Wilson in Jordan Peele’s Us. In Catherine, Barzey has given Planet Dead a lead who can carry the story and keep the reader longing to see more.
Planet Dead is in many ways a woman’s world, and various female characters entwine Catherine’s journey and story. Early on we meet Sue, frightened, alone, and overwhelmed, wide-eyed innocence that sits in stark contrast to Catherine’s cynicism. As the world around them continues to disintegrate into blood and chaos, each discovers new dimensions to their own personality, facilitated through the other, creating a welcome depth and friendship.
As is to be expected within such post-apocalyptic worlds, the true monsters are often human in form, and Barzey plays with these concepts throughout. This is a welcome arc within Planet Dead as Catherine and Sue fight the insanity and depravity around them, a viciousness that has erupted through the loss of any tangible order. At various moments, as the blood rains down, we are forced to consider who is pursuing their bloodlust nature with the most voracity; zombies or humans? When the zombies hunt earth’s survivors, doing what we expect them to do, it is almost reassuring, a reminder that we are in familiar territory. But Barzey’s human players make us question who is actually out of control.
But Barzey doesn’t overplay the moral maze that these acts inevitably invite us to wander through, letting the reader make up their own minds whilst enjoying the gore, violence, and action that is regularly served up. There is a well struck balance between entertainment and introspection. The reader that wants shock and awe will not be disappointed, and won’t be required to dwell too deeply on the why of unfolding events. But those interested in the deeper questions that such events uncover will have enough to help them wrestle and reflect.
There are sufficient human characters to keep you interested, but Barzey doesn’t crowd his world. Planet Dead feels suitably deserted of human presence in this apocalyptic nightmare, but those that we do meet along the way serve the story well. None of the people feel out of place, nor simply written in to provide the living dead with lunch on the go.
At its heart though, this is a zombie tale, and as a zombie tale Planet Dead does not disappoint. Barzey gives the reader Romero-esque nostalgic visions of the zombie past, and it feels entirely appropriate. But before you can settle in for a trip down gore-drenched memory lane, Barzey mixes things up, throwing in plenty of zombie surprises along the way. That’s not to say that Barzey tries to redefine the zombie genre, but it is to say that some of Planet Dead’s zombies offer the reader unfamiliar variants of concern that provide our protagonists, and the reader, plenty of blood-soaked unpredictability.
The human characters, the relationships they share, and the zombie infection they continue to battle against, are developed well throughout. The final third of Planet Dead teases us again as to the cause of the zombie outbreak, and leads us through some interesting twists and revelations, setting up the sequel nicely.
In many ways fans of the ZOMPOC world will feel on familiar ground, yet Barzey offers enough variety along the way to add a freshness and vitality to the genre, meaning readers have in Planet Dead an exciting and enjoyable addition to their zombie library. Barzey clearly loves his craft, and his passion for storytelling bleeds out on the page for us all to enjoy.