There were A LOT of different monster trilogies coming out around the same time – Stephenie Meyer’s depiction of vampires in Twilight, Maggie Stiefvater’s use of werewolves in Shiver – but Generation Dead by Daniel Waters really stood out as something to watch for. And it was something with zombies.
Generation Dead imagines what would happen if teenagers all of a sudden started coming back from the dead. And if they did, what would that mean for confronting the friends and families that they left behind, for returning to school, for trying to be normal when their situation was anything but that. And then on the other side, how everyone else reacts to them. The novel primarily revolves around Tommy, a newly reanimated teen returning to high school, and Phoebe, the living girl who kind of falls for him.
There are a handful of things that really stayed with me after I read the book the first time. And they’re kind of important in that I can remember them and be transported right back into that “something is not right” feeling of the book:
1. There is this forest that borders the high school where Tommy disappears after a football game and there is something about a forest by a high school that seems all at once creepy and chilling and dreamlike.
2. Waters writes one of the most horrifying zombie death scenes that I think I’ve ever read in a book or seen in a movie. It isn’t just the method of how it’s done, it’s the way Waters writes a handful of teenage characters who have this sort of overwhelming hatred that can lead to murder.
3. The love triangle between protagonist Phoebe, the teenage zombie Tommy, and Phoebe’s best friend (who is also living), Adam. Phoebe's interest in Tommy and her desire to show that she doesn’t discriminate against the new zombie teenagers at her school ends up causing her to confuse love with just caring deeply about Tommy and his situation. And the ending of this book is really not to be missed.
4. Zombie Tommy decides to try out for the football team. He isn’t as fast as everyone else and there are more serious consequences for being hit too hard (such as losing limbs that don’t really have a great chance of coming back), but he does it anyway. It enacts this sort of instant sympathy in readers while also creating the animosity and tension that drives the book towards its surprising conclusion.
5. That anyone comes back to life in a book provides the occasion to talk about a lot of important things to do with death. However, because Generation Dead is about deceased teenagers coming back to life, Waters has the opportunity to raise quite a few important questions. He introduces many reasons for the deaths of the teenagers who come back: suicide, disease, accident, etc. Teenagers inhabit a very transitory space in development. It is a temporary place that's just sort of between childhood and adulthood. When Waters makes the temporary permanent by bringing back deceased teenagers, he also raises the issue of aging and maturing without growing older. And for the character who commits suicide and is then forced back into living, Waters brings up this sort of “return to” the problems that death allowed this character to leave behind.
Generation Dead was followed by Kiss of Life and Passing Strange. Both books are set in the same world that Generation Dead introduces to the reader, one where teenagers mysteriously come back from the dead and live in a half-state of life and death. Waters succeeds in making a world that seems familiar: we can almost believe in the events that he imagines even though they belong firmly entrenched in fantasy. It kind of reflects that same in-between of the zombie teenagers who are unable to be young or old, without being able to be one thing or the other.