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By (May 1, 2009) No Comment

Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament

By S.G. Browne
Broadway Books, 2009

Zombies are everywhere today. They’re in our movies, invading our music and they’ve begun taking over our bookshelves as well.And according to Andy Warner, the undead narrator of Breathers, zombies have been walking amongst us since the Great Depression. In Andy’s fictive universe, there are zombies scattered throughout every population of humans around the world. A certain percentage of all people come back from the dead for no apparent reason. Resurrection is just something that happens, and it’s treated like a nuisance to society.

In Breathers we quickly learn that zombies are considered even less than second class citizens. They are more like stray dogs than people who once lived normal lives, had normal deaths, and just so happened not to stay dead. In Breathers, any stray zombies are picked up off the street and brought to the SPCA to be claimed by the living person who is their guardian.

Zombies have a curfew; they are limited as to where they can and cannot congregate, and they are not allowed to use the internet (the horror!). The undead are also hunted for sport by drunken frat guys, which is perfectly legal because these undead are not technically citizens. This is not living! These restrictions put a serious damper on a one’s social life.

Despite not having a Social Security number (his was officially retired when he died), Andy tries to get by with a little peace and dignity. Unfortunately, his attempts at dignity often disturb the peace. When he walks through town, he is constantly pelted with food that breathers (zombie slang for the living) purchase for that express purpose. Andy’s walks quickly turn into airborne smorgasbords of convenience store slurpees and fast food hamburgers. Certainly not dignified, nor peaceful. And these strolls often attract the SPCA, who show up and cart him off to a kennel to wait for his ashamed father to come and retrieve him.

There’s no humor in Andy’s home life either, gallows or otherwise. His father, who is openly hostile toward him and humiliated to have a zombie for a son, is more upset by the decreasing property value of his house (zombies are fatal for the real estate market) than he is by the fact that his son’s face is nearly falling off. His mother does her best impression of being supportive, but she also tries her best to not touch Andy and makes him take Pine Sol baths to mask the smell of his decomposing flesh. As you can imagine, these two parental examples do not improve Andy’s view of life, or rather his undead life after death. His parents have exiled him to the wine cellar so that the neighbors can avoid catching a glimpse of the local eyesore. The upside of all this is that Andy has a seemingly endless supply of wine, and a television that streams in reality shows and cable movies

In Andy’s world, the only place he gets some sort if dignity is his support group for zombies, Undead Anonymous (UA), a small group of local zombies who get together twice a week to discuss their emotions and feel empowered, all the while complying with the rigid laws that limit a zombie’s civil rights. The leader of the group, Helen, tries to remain positive and upbeat, but she has an unfortunate weakness for unintentionally demeaning slogans. She means well, and being undead herself she is empathetic, but her approach to the group leaves most of them feeling like rotting pre-schoolers. It doesn’t seem like things could get any worse for these reanimated corpses, until they meet Ray.

Ray is a zombie, but unlike every other zombie Andy has ever met, he doesn’t feel bad about being undead. Ray energizes the group, making them feel equal to breathers. He lets everybody hang out in his barn, read his stack of vintage girly magazines and eat jars of human flesh. Yup, Ray gives the entire UA group jars of cooked breathers, which helps regenerate their dead flesh and inspires all of them to fight against the oppression of the breather-government.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Let me remind you that this is a book about zombies. And one thing that all zombies have in common is: they eat people! No spoiler alert required. And let’s face it, up until this point Breathers has more closely resembled a story about teenage angst than a book about the resurrected dead.

The addition of people-eating (and don’t you dare call it cannibalism) is one of the few things that puts Breathers into a context of historical, post-Romero cinematic zombie representation. Sure, S.G. Browne attempts to build suspense by having Ray tell the UA group that they’re eating venison, and for a while they believe him – but any reader who’s seen a single zombie film (excluding the Haitian zombie films in the 1920’s) could see the people-eating coming a mile away off. If Soylent Green was a zombie movie, you would have seen it coming there too. [

Breathers takes a peculiar stance within zombie mythology; it tries to deny most zombie film conventions, and yet it constantly makes references to all cinema, zombie and not. It takes Browne all of 14 pages to make his first of dozens of Romero references. And before that he makes at least half a dozen specific cinematic references, ranging from Brad Pitt to Mary Poppins. The balance between trying to set Breathers apart from the typical Hollywood zombie vehicle, and the whole time employing many typical zombie motifs, is exhausting. This denial and acceptance theme runs throughout the book.

Andy makes a point of telling us that zombies are not what the movies tell us they are. Zombies are thinking, feeling, talking beings that just so happen to have no pulse. He tells us that zombies don’t lurch, rather they can walk or run at the rate of a slow human. The zombies in Breathers can also talk. This would be quite a departure from the zombies from Night of the Living Dead, or Fulci’s Zombie, if it were not for the fact that Andy himself can neither speak nor walk at a regular pace. Andy has a badly broken foot that forces him to lurch in the typical zombie fashion (think Flyboy after he died in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which was Romero’s personal favorite zombie walk of all time). Andy also cannot speak in the beginning of the book. He has a dry erase board that he wears around his neck to communicate with others. A bit of authority is lost by having an undead stereotype try to convince us that undead stereotypes are inaccurate, but all this begins to change once Andy starts eating that sweet breather flesh. His tissues begin to regenerate, he loses his limp, regains his voice and starts to stick up for himself.

Andy is also constantly trying to get the reader to sympathize with him, while at the same time, unfortunately, setting the bar for such sympathy at bit high:

If you’ve never been in a dumpster coated with industrial waste while someone stabs you with a piece of sharpened re-bar, then you probably wouldn’t understand.

These asides do help fulfill the comedy aspect of the rom-zom-com (Romantic Zombie Comedy) designation on the back cover of the book. The romantic part comes in with Andy’s fellow UA member Rita. Rita is a cute young woman who took her own life immediately prior to becoming undead. She flirts with Andy during their UA meetings, and their inevitable courting is nearly as predictable as the introduction of people-eating. They make a good couple, but their romance seems to be plunked into the book to drive the plot along, rather than as a grand romantic gesture. Their relationship is lifeless, so to speak.

The most interesting parts of Breathers revolve around a certain frat house’s obsession with capturing zombie body parts as trophies for their hazing rituals. One UA member, Tom, has his arm stolen from him while the group walks home from a meeting. The anger and helplessness that the group feels over this is absorbing – one of the more emotional scenes in the book. But don’t get too close:

If you’ve never seen someone get his arm torn out of his socket by a gang of drunk college fraternity boys who slapped him in the face with his own hand, then you probably wouldn’t understand.

Before Breathers hit bookstore shelves last month, its film rights had already been snatched up by Hollywood. That’s right: soon the film Breathers will be brought to you, produced by Diablo Cody (writer of Juno, and former stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold). Makes you wonder what sort of zombie film this might end up being. Clearly any resemblance to the Romero zombie films is out of the question. When Big Daddy in Land of the Dead fights for zombie rights, he does so with a gun and a jackhammer, not a dry erase board. Even a film close to the Dawn of the Dead remake by Snyder, or another art house darling like Fido would be delightful, but nothing in Breathers lends itself toward either of those approaches. Unfortunately, a literal adaptation of Breathers might mean another My Boyfriend’s Back. And if you haven’t already seen that movie, which tries to be a rom-zom-com but fails miserably, then you wouldn’t understand.

Diablo Cody

Deirdre Crimmins lives in Boston, wrote her Master’s thesis on George Romero, and works too much.

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