Alone, on a deserted island research laboratory, three scientists with the hopes of the entire world resting on their shoulders slowly degenerate into madness and the not-death of Ataxic Neurodegenerative Satiety Deficiency Syndrome (ANSD)—Zombieism.
Scientist to the last, Dr. Stanley Blum records not only his experiments and discoveries, along with those of his colleagues, but also his own slow descent as he succumbs to the symptoms of ANSD. It is now down to us, fellow members of the UN emergency session, to take his discoveries and use them to save what remains of the human race.
This is the key conceit in The Zombie Autopsies, Dr. Schlozman’s work of zombie fiction. Laid out like a briefing packet for members of the UN’s emergency session dealing with the zombie plague that has almost completely overwhelmed the earth, the book is divided into three main parts. The first is a short introduction, which does an excellent job of setting the scene of desperation that has led to the events described in the rest of the book. The second, and primary, part of the book are the “Secret Notebooks” described in the title, the journal of Dr. Stanley Blum written during the last weeks of his life as a volunteer as part of a desperate, last ditch research attempt. The third and final section is similar to the first as it provides a fictional UN supplied appendix of material.
Throughout the fictional journal, there is a bittersweet sense of a desperately held hope. The characters have no hope for themselves; they already know they are lost, on a one-way trip, and once on the island they will become almost instantly infected and thus doomed as the symptoms of ANSD begin to take over and degrade their brain functions. They have to hold out hope, however, that despite past failures they can discover something that just might prevent the extinction of the entire race. No pressure.
The excitement as theories are put forward is palpable, and the fear and dismay as mistakes are made and mental problems begin to take hold in the group are easy to identify with. Portraying the story as a fiction journal combines with the not inconsiderable skill of the author to provide a very real and emotional journey of a sort that is not often associated with the more violent and visceral nature of modern zombie fiction. This is a more cerebral story and all the more effective because of it.
The background matter in the final section of the book is very effective in providing further setting information and the email evidence accumulated in the appendix gives context as to how the plague started and some characterisation to the nameless executive whose greed destroyed the world. However, this is by far the weakest section of the book and other than a certain amount of colour, it doesn’t add a great deal to the primary story of Dr. Blum.
Schlozman, in his writing of this book, has decided to leave the eventual fate of mankind and thus the final result of Blum’s sacrifice undetermined, and the email trail thus feels a little like the author is unable to leave his creation alone once finished. It hints at a possible cure already in existence but without any real indication of who is behind the faceless communique, or their current status (the emails date from before the plague). It’s difficult to know how or if it matters at this stage in the story. Is it attempting to suggest that the sacrifice of these brave scientists is, in the end, completely unnecessary?
The final section of the book seems to add another layer of ambiguity to an already ambiguous ending, and dilutes the primary impact. The rest of the book does such a good job at playing on the reader’s emotions that this final piece of the puzzle feels flat and contrived by comparison.
A book like this had to come along eventually. The genre cries out for first-person accounts of the zombie apocalypse. But Schlozman deserves real acknowledgement for what he has accomplished with this short work. As a doctor himself, Schlozman’s descriptions of the physiological stages of the disease are gripping and feel very real. This is assisted by some very graphic and realistic pencil sketches of the autopsies he performs on the “living” zombies during his research, showing the things he describes in excruciating detail. The nature of the story as a journal rather than a report or official communique means we get a first-hand look at the main character’s thoughts as well as his experiments, which adds a lot of further detail to the setting as he considers the decline of social order, the official rulings of authorities on the “humanity” of those afflicted with ANSD, and the ethical issues inherent in the research he is forced to perform. Schlozman gives us a living, breathing (for a short while longer, anyway) world on the brink of destruction through the eyes of a sympathetic and quietly heroic protagonist.
Comparisons almost invariably have to be made between the final days of Blum’s life and the short story “Flowers for Algernon,” by Daniel Keyes (which later became a novel of the same name). The Zombie Autopsies is somewhat less poignant and tragic than that older story and the difference in theme along with the direct medical viewpoint provides a radically different tone.
Any fan of the zombie genre and particularly those more concerned with the psychological effects of such stories as highlighted in the early Romero films rather than the gore central to more modern takes on the genre will definitely find a lot to enjoy in this one.
Finally, for those who are interested in the visual media, a movie based on The Zombie Autopsies is currently in production. Personally, given the epistolic style of the story and the ambiguity of the ending, it is difficult to see how a movie could be made without radically altering the story—or at least greatly expanding on it. Still, George Romero is on board to direct, so with excellent source material and the father of the genre himself, it could well be one to watch.