The single-most iconic and memorable line in the zombie horror genre is surely the classic utterance, “They’re Coming To Get You, Barbara!” from Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead (though personally I’ve always been fond of Captain Rhode’s impassioned “Choke on ‘em!” from Day of the Dead). The phrase is uttered by Johnny, brother of the titular Barbara, as they walk through the cemetery where their parents are buried, at the start of the film. It’s meant to be a cruel jest, a brotherly mocking of his sister’s fears about being in the cemetery as it gets dark, and her emotions about the passing of their parents; by contrast, Johnny is only concerned about the length of time taken driving to their destination, and the cost of the flowers they’ll be leaving at the graves. Of course, what’s meant as a thoughtless barb actually becomes entirely true, as the siblings are accosted by the living dead as they begin rising from their graves. Within mere moments of speaking, Johnny is borne to the ground by a zombie, and its companions pursue Barbara out of the cemetery and towards the distant farmhouse where the bulk of the film will take place. There, Barbara will encounter stout-hearted Ben, trying to protect the houses residents from the rapidly-growing mob of undead, and the untrustworthy family already present in the basement of the house. If you’re reading this review then you’ve almost certainly watched the film, or at the very least the 1990 remake, but to summarise: after a tense night of trying to keep the undead out of the house, a failed bid for freedom in a truck that leads to tragedy at the hands of the undead, as well as treachery from the living, Barbara is ultimately dragged from the house to her death.
In the plot of the film – both the classic monochrome version and the full-colour remake – brother Johnny barely makes an impact. His role is merely a prop to set up the beginning of the narrative, his sole memorable line delivered to scare Barbara and act as an ironic utterance for the weave of cold, undead flesh about to swarm them. Such is his irrelevance, the actor who plays Johnny (Russell Streiner, also a friend of Romero’s and a producer for the film) actually goes uncredited as the credits roll at the end of the film. Yet, interestingly, when you watch the opening scenes of the film, it isn’t entirely clear that Johnny is actually killed by the zombie that attacks him – instead he seems to sink to the ground, only reappearing at the climax of the film to draw Barbara away in amidst the horde of zombies attacking the farmhouse. While that would certainly seem to indicate that Johnny has joined the ranks of the living dead, author J.D. Allen has a different angle on Barbara’s unfortunate brother in his new novella, They’re Coming To Get You, Barbara!
Allen takes as his Point of Departure (PoD) the idea that Johnny isn’t killed in the cemetery at the start of the film, but is instead just thrown against a gravestone and knocked unconscious; the zombies are far more interested in pursuing his sister, and Johnny is left untouched to wake a short time later. In pain, confused and uncertain what’s going on, Johnny attempts to return to his car and find his sister, only to slowly come to the realisation that Barbara has already had: the dead have risen, and are hungry for living flesh. Spurred on by terrifying reports of cannibalistic killers coming over the damaged car’s radio, Johnny flees back into the cemetery looking for shelter and assistance. Instead, as he moves through the area looking for his sister, he’ll encounter a young girl who claims her dead grandmother bit her; an eerie funeral director who has worryingly optimistic views about dealing with the undead; and an oddly well-prepared and sinister fellow survivor who invites Johnny to take shelter at his farm, fortuitously next to where Barbara and Ben are under siege. Just surviving the apocalypse may be difficult enough for Johnny, let alone finding and saving his sister.
As the novella progresses, Allen provides us with an engaging and fascinating series of events that neatly run parallel to the events of the film, filling in gaps and greatly expanding the film’s story, to the extent that it delivers a clever and well-constructed epilogue to the events of the film. There are some genuinely creepy and atmospheric set-pieces throughout the novella, which to Allen’s great credit perfectly match the tone and atmosphere of Romero’s classic: I’m particularly fond on an early scene set in a funeral home, in which Johnny has to deal with a well-meaning but utterly naïve mortician trying to cope with his recently-deceased clients coming back to life. There’s a real sense of tension as Johnny deals with growing hordes of zombies, as well as the worst attributes of humanity coming to the fore, as he tries to rescue Barbara; and while I won’t spoil it, his sudden appearance at the farmhouse to snatch his sister away is actually incredibly well-written, and Allen makes good use of a relatively uncommon genre trope to close the plot-hole.
Filled with some memorable and engaging characters, great sect-pieces, and a chilling atmosphere bolstered by the use of static-y snatches of radio broadcasts that help flesh out the world-building that Romero started in his film, They’re Coming To Get You, Barbara! is one of the best pieces of indie zombie fiction I’ve read in quite some time. It can be a little rough around the edges at times – Allen’s decision to make sudden noises appear in bold, capital letters can be a little awkward at times, bringing you out of the story for a moment – but the novella has clearly been written by a talented writer with an obvious passion for the film, and Romero’s vision as a whole. It’s available for a ridiculously low price right now, as well as being available through Kindle Unlimited, and as such any fan of high-quality, horrifying and blood-spattered zombie fiction should be picking up a copy of They’re Coming To Get You, Barbara! right this minute.