I will be honest with you. I did not think that PLAY DEAD, film and television actor Ryan Brown’s debut novel, would work. The premise seemed just a little too far out: the members of a high school football team, wiped out on the eve of their first district championship game, come back as zombies and play the game of their lives. Well, not exactly. Anyway, this seemed like a better B-movie than a book. Still, I wanted to be fair. After all, I had been wrong about a little book called HEART-SHAPED BOX by Joe Hill, hating it until I actually read it. So I cracked open PLAY DEAD the other day and didn’t close it until several hours later. That’s right, I was wrong again.
Let us give credit where it is due. Ryan Brown, the son of bestselling author Sandra Brown, is not only a great storyteller but also an outstanding writer. What he gets going here is a mixture of “Friday Night Lights” and Re-Animator, taking the best qualities of both and producing a horror story that is part uplifting, part romantic, part gross, and all great. Regardless, I guarantee you that before you reach the end of the book, you will care about whether or not the Killington High School Jackrabbits --- dead (mostly) or alive (one) --- end the season as the East Texas Two-A Champions of Region Six, District Four.
How do we get a team of zombies on the field? It is thanks to the effort of Quarterback Cole Logan, a James Dean in shoulder pads who has absolutely nothing going for him except a deadly accurate throwing arm and enough attitude to light an entire team on fire. When Logan is attacked and maimed on the day of a crucial game, he can either roll over and play dead, or stand up and look for payback. He does the latter; however, all the attitude in the world does not help when his teammates are killed as the result of a deadly prank carried out by their arch-rivals, the steroid-jacked Elmwood Heights Badgers. If Logan is going to get his team up and running again, he will need help, which comes in the form of Black Mona, Logan’s nearest neighbor. Much is whispered about Mona, who 1) dabbles in the supernatural and 2) happens to be the Jackrabbits’ Number One fan. A little of this and a little of that, and the team is back, if not totally intact.
Of course, a reconstitution job like this takes a lot out of Mona, and all too soon Logan finds himself trying to pull the team together, a task a few steps more difficult than herding cats. He has a bit of help with Savannah, a good girl attracted in spite of herself by Logan’s bad-boy persona, and Savannah’s father, who happens to be the Jackrabbits’ football coach. Much is eventually settled in the football stadium, in a bone-crunching game (literally) in which the winner will take more than all.
PLAY DEAD is horrific, shocking, funny, gross and engrossing. It is also very cinematic; I have a feeling that there is a script laying around somewhere, begging to be picked up if it hasn’t been already and that Brown may have another trip to Killington planned in the future. The important thing, though, is that you check out PLAY DEAD right now.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 18, 2011