Zombie apocalypse stories are a staple of fiction, but they admittedly do hit differently in a post-2020 world. It’s therefore hard not to wince at Crueler Than Dead‘s plot of a virus spreading out unchecked across the globe, forcing people to shelter away from the outside world, salvation only possibly coming in the formulation of some sort of vaccine. However, despite the foreboding nature implied by its title, Crueler Than Dead turns out to be not as mean-spirited a zombie tale as you might expect. Rather, this first volume paints a situation punctuated almost every step of the way with a sense of optimism, of the possibility that humanity in this situation might turn things around successfully.
Key to that feeling is the particular hook of Crueler Than Dead: Main character Maki, along with her child companion Shota, are both former zombies (though in classic genre fashion, that term is not used, with the undead being referred to as ‘Oz’ in this universe). For one, it creates an interesting way to initiate the story as Maki wakes up with as little understanding of what’s going on as the audience. It’s only when the truth is made clear to her do little elements of the setup, as well her attitude and motivation, begin to crystalize along with the plot and push her and Shota forward onto a journey with actual goals they have to accomplish. Of course, there’s some clunkiness just in getting that to happen in the first place; the exposition of Maki’s former zombie status, and the situation with civilians holed up in the Tokyo Dome in need of the convenient case of cure that only Maki can deliver, are gasped out by a soldier who stumbles in purely to dispense that summary.
It’s a bit jarring after the effectiveness of our minimalist introduction to Maki to just have everything infodumped out, almost like author Kozo Takahashi either couldn’t find a more organic way of delivering the information, or simply just wanted to cut to the chase. Some of the worldbuilding details delivered by the soldier still manage to ring well with the overall tone of the story – specifically the bittersweet irony of humans starting families they’re driven to protect even in a horrific crisis situation, and the bonus chapter at the end of this first volume helps to humanize him in that element as well. But it mostly comes off like sort of a video-game mission briefing to send Maki on her way to survive and smash some enemies up with her leftover zombie super-strength.
As well, even once Maki and Shota are on the road, Crueler Than Dead still takes a bit to come into its own. Early chapters of their escape through the still-infested corridors of the lab or an ill-fated stop at Shota’s former home simply present predictable zombie fights, spiced up only by the heightened abilities of the characters we’re watching engage with them. However, it’s at the beginning of another seemingly-standby story situation, the encounter with a self-interested faction of antagonistic humans, that things begin to turn interesting. The archetypal characters and situations populating this zombie-apocalypse world aren’t set in stone; they’re mutable and open to change and self-betterment. Exemplified in the ‘cured’ condition of our main characters, there develops a tangible, constant theme of reflective redemption, even if some levels of that rebirth require actually dying first. It fits then that Maki’s actions can re-instill people with the will to live when she herself is literally learning to live again.
Not that Crueler Than Dead should be advertised as an entirely shining beacon of optimism. True to the form of a lot of the zombie stories it sets out to emulate (and indeed, of the sort that artist Tsukasa Saimura has largely cut their teeth on before), the visions of violence our characters survive through can get grisly, and especially in the first half, a hopeless sense of stagnation pervades their pursuit of their goal. Threats of harm and sexual assault become commonplace when they’re caught by the ‘Paradise’ faction of humans, and even they are insinuated to be potential pawns of a bigger force moving in by the end. It’s not all uncompromised hope for the people in this story, with the ideas of things like the zombie cure or the families started by the refugees representing the potential light at the end of this dark, sometimes-too-relatable tunnel.
The art works mostly in service of manifesting that harsh reality being pushed through in this story. Saimura obviously has a gritty style well-suited to this brand of gory horror, and can depict sudden hordes of threatening zombies with an effective page turn (this gets used especially well at one point in the bonus chapter). It’s worth noting that while Crueler Than Dead certainly isn’t tame when it comes to gore, as one would expect from the genre, it never really feels like it’s going too hard on the ultraviolence compared to others further along on that scale. There’s blood, severed limbs, some exposed bones, and a few pretty graphic (and cool) zombie kills, along with a splash of nudity here and there just to make sure you know this isn’t for the kids. But between it never getting all that extreme, and the more optimistic sense ultimately approached by its story, this manga rings a bit more as a general-audience invitation to the zombie horror story genre than a piece for the darkly-dedicated die-hards to sink their teeth into. Aside from that, there are instances of layouts that don’t quite read well (particularly an early scene where Maki coughs up a finger she apparently ate while in zombie mode, which I had to read a couple of times to grasp), and facial expressions can come across as a bit ill-defined or dull in some places. But it mostly works and communicates the tone of the kind of story that’s being told here.
Crueler Than Dead is thus worth giving a chance, even if you’re not normally into zombie apocalypse stories or find yourself put off by the seemingly-generic style and core premise. There’s an appreciable feeling to this one, despite originally coming out back in 2015, that applies to a lot of the uncertainties we may feel today. There’s still legwork that has to be put in, both for ourselves and the situations we hope to resolve as a collective, and indeed, this manga still has plenty it needs to do moving forward to end up an effectively complete story. But once it gets going, it does turn out to be engaging in ways you might not have expected, as the story itself, like the situation it depicts, shows that things can get better after a while.