October 14, 2011

The Undertakers: Rise of the Corpses (Review)

The Undertakers: 
Rise of the Corpses

By Ty Drago

Source Books: 2011

3.5 / 5 zedheads

If you wanted to revise John Carpenter's They Live to make it appealing to the Harry Potter crowd, it would probably read like The Undertakers: Rise of the Corpses.

The Undertakers: Rise of the Corpses is the first book in a new series of young adult fiction by Ty Drago. In it, a young boy named Will Ritter wakes up one morning to discover that there are corpses walking among us. While Will is horrified to discover corpses walking and talking, he's even more shocked to discover that these "corpses" look like normal, lively, people to everyone else. Why can't anyone else see that his cranky next door neighbor, his principal, and even his math teacher are rotting, grotesque cadavers? Is he going crazy? Will's sanity is affirmed when he's whisked away by a secret group of kids and young teens that share his vision. They call themselves The Undertakers.

The Undertakers explain to Will that some kids are born with the ability to 'See' the creatures known as the Corpses, mysterious alien invaders that have secretly infiltrated humanity. They're not zombies, but they use our dead as bodies and quite enjoy biting and maiming their victims. Somehow, the Corpses project a false image so everyone else (adults and other kids) sees them as normal folks. Will is reluctantly recruited by The Undertakers to wage a secret war against the Corpses, but he has no idea how special he is in the fight to come. As Will embarks on a dangerous series of adventures, he discovers the meaning of heroism and a shocking family secret that will shape his destiny.

For the most part, The Undertakers: Rise of the Corpses is a very satisfying young adult novel. At 465 pages, it's a substantial reading experience full of memorable characters, exciting and tense escapes, and even some surprisingly dark and bloody moments -- nothing too gory, but suggestive of a level of graphic violence I didn't expect. As an adult, it took me a while to adjust my perspective to the pre-teen male demographic that the book is geared towards, but once I did I became surprisingly invested in uncovering the mystery of the Corpses and following the exploits of Will Ritter and The Undertakers. The writing and characterization is uniformly solid; however, the kids are often guilty of talking the way adults think kids talk (based on our outdated recollections from own childhoods). In the long run, Drago's avoidance of modern youth slang may help the novel from becoming dated. Overall, I enjoyed the novel, but I'd be lying if I didn't also admit that my enjoyment was tempered by an overwhelming awareness of the novel's derivative elements.

Obviously, The Undertakers: Rise of the Corpses is inspired by John Carpenter's anti-consumer film They Live. In They Live, a laborer obtains a pair of glasses that let him see the America for what it really is: a country of greed and conspicuous consumption managed by corpse-like aliens who masquerade as the world's wealthy and elite ruling class. They secretly control humans through subliminal propaganda like "CONSUME", "STAY ASLEEP", and of course "OBEY."

The Undertakers: Rise of the Corpses clearly takes heavy inspiration from the premise of They Live, even going so far as to show that "Obey" as a key word in the Corpse vocabulary. Sadly, Drago borrows the premise but dumps Carpenter's social and economic satire in exchange for a simpler subtext about youth's alienation and mistrust of adults. At many points in the novel where the parallels with They Live were strongest, I found myself dwelling on my memories of the movie more than I was paying attention to the narrative of the novel. The Undertakers: Rise of the Corpses is not a ripoff of They Live, nor is it a slavish homage, but I did find it distractingly derivative.

I was also struck by a subtler attempt to pattern The Undertakers: Rise of the Corpses after the Harry Potter franchise. Aside from the common conventions shared by young adult fantasy stories, there seemed to be some obvious parallels between Will Ritter and the Boy Who Lived. A young boy (Harry Potter / Will Ritter) is taken out of his normal life to a world where things are not what they seem and where he is a reluctant celebrity/hero based on mysterious events from his (family's) past. The good guys venerate him, and the bad guys are after him with a vengeance. Away from the normal world, he must live with other special kids who are sorted into distinct groups to learn and train in special arts (instead of magic,the different groups that make up The Undertakers learn martial arts, mechanical repair, and computer hacking skills). Haven (the home of The Undertakers) isn't exactly Hogwarts, but it might as well be for how remote and removed it is from the everyday world. Actually, to get to both Hogwarts and Haven you do have to pass through a wall that's not really a wall. Hmmmmmm. Anyways, the parallels continue: instead of being bestowed with a special magic wand like Harry Potter gets, Will Ritter encounters a mysterious being that bestows on him a super high-tech Swiss army knife. It includes a knife, telescope, lock pick, and -- oh -- also an EMP pulse generator. When he fires off the EMP blast, he might as well be shouting, "Spectro patronum!" The similarities are so embedded in the story that I think Harry Potter and Will Ritter would get on quite well with each other if they ever got the chance to sit down and share their mutual experience of being unnaturally gifted, effortlessly popular, and saddled with grave responsibilities and grand destinies.

I'm not saying The Undertakers: Rise of the Corpses is a bad story for including these elements, but I have to admit that I was distracted by them. If you can look past these elements and avoid stopping to say, "Oh, that's just like They Live," or "Hey, this reminds me of Harry Potter," then you'll probably have a more enjoyable time reading Rise of the Corpses. I look forward to future releases in The Undertakers series, but I hope Ty Drago starts to expand on his original mythology and set his series apart from the movies and other fiction that have clearly inspired his premise and characters.