Exit Zero is the debut illustrated Novel from New Jersey based author Neil Cohen.
It’s a well-known phrase that you can’t judge a book by its cover, however, as with many mediums (film, book, video games) actually to some extent you do get a bit of an idea of the direction of a product from the art-style and this is no exception. The vibrant, gruesome cover showing a zombie (or ‘skell’ in this case) walking along a decimated NJ freeway tells us all we need to know about the books content, and for me it was an unedited gory apocalyptic world I couldn’t wait to delve into.
Fans of the website will know that the Zombie genre is perhaps amongst my favourite, and as such, I am known to be over critical of works which enter into its domain, rightly so too! It’s a well-trodden path eroded too often with thoughtless entries which are nothing but cash-ins, where just a little bit of thought and passion could make or break even the most minimalistic of plots. After all these years of horror reviewing one might forgive me if I had given up, however I know that hidden within the putrid pile of festering titles lie the fresh ones - titles which get the balance between homage and love for all the things which make the genre so beloved and adding new ideas to invigorate and remind us that there is life in the flogged corpse yet.
Exit Zero is such a title.
The novel is written as a love letter to both the genre and to the state of New Jersey. Whilst living in the United Kingdom I cannot talk as an authority on the nuances and habits of a place I know nothing about, however it is obvious that Cohen has a keen cynical eye and has grounded his setting and rich bank of characters on stereotypes and attitudes of the Garden state. I’ve no doubt that should you be from the US you will enjoy another layer that this book has to offer, but from my perspective its colourful array of characters, from scientists to mercenaries and survivalists to Mafioso gangsters, bring to life the world within which the eclectic mix of old high school buddies must face off and survive against an infected state at the epicentre of a Zombie apocalypse. Each of the characters are introduced with a brief rundown of their history, a hint at their involvement in the outbreak and their individual agendas throughout the event and the story is told pretty much in real time from then on. To keep pace Cohen flips between characters frequently throughout the chapters and depending on which character(s) you find most amusing you will find yourself struggling to put the book down as each chapters offers something in the way of a cliff hanger! Each character is stereotypical enough so that you can relate, but with the odd little twist in their persona to keep them from falling into the cliché. Each character has plenty of flaws, some of whom you may think do not deserve to survive, but as the story progresses we get under their skin and see their little quirks and you begin to empathise. One way or the other Cohen has crafted a whole cast of people you give a shit about, which within the horror genre in general is a feat which deserves merit.
With the characters introduced the Zombie apocalypse side of things is typical horror fayre. It begins with sporadic outbreaks which only hint at things to come, and predictably end in an all-out siege which even the military cannot handle. The descriptions of the apocalyptic world are vivid enough, but ‘Exit Zero’ has the added benefit (for lazy readers like myself) of some stunningly detailed and very gory artwork. The carnage throughout the book is frequent and Cohen takes great pleasure in leaving nothing to the imagination! Describing every detail precisely, right down to the smells in some cases! It’s as in your face and gratuitous as the genre needs to be! One added touch which I felt really contextualised Cohen’s fictitious outbreak was the use of frequent social media formats. Rather than take us outside of the realms of our main characters plight Cohen writes in the information we need to piece together using emails, news broadcasts, twitter feeds and text messages - A perfect analogy to real zombies if ever I saw one!
With all the above ingredients in place I have saved my favourite part of the book to summarise last, and that is (as it should rightly be) the Zombies - or Skells, in this case. I will not give anything away here as I believe you should enjoy this for yourself, but Cohen’s cause for Zombification, and the effects of the condition are nothing short of genius! Being a fan of the genre I have always enjoyed the movies which hit on the genres true influences - the human condition of development of technology without thoughts of the consequence. It began with Shelly’s Frankenstein, a grim beacon of the Romantic Movement, and then developed contemporary by Romero and his subtext of chemical weapons, and the widespread use of chemical sprays in ‘The living Dead at Manchester Morgue’. Cohen embraces such an ethos, and whilst his undertones are not quite as poignant they are none the less relevant.
Overall ‘Exit Zero’ is simply a must read for any fan of the Zombie Genre. It epitomizes everything an account of a Zombie outbreak needs to be. Its characters are well developed without ever getting in the way of the fast paced and gruesome action contained within, and it simply gets to where it needs to without the need for padding or pretentious ramblings. Whilst there are some characters I would have liked to have seen more of, and the occasional sub-plot which seemed a little ‘twist’ to far there is so much to enjoy it feels petty to criticise.
The book is due to be released February 2015! Get it on your wish list, and in the meantime, watch what you eat!