01 May 2013

Star Wars: Death Troopers

Star Wars: Death Troopers (2009)
By Joe Schreiber

By 2012, the Star Wars franchise was a dead body. It lay in the open, festering, attracting attention, but for most fans it was… dead. Then the Walt Disney wizards appeared and cast a Level 5 resurrection spell along with a multi-billion-dollar buyout spell, and presto! Star Wars turned into the walking dead. We shall see how that works out long term; perhaps zombie Star Wars will develop like Bub the Zombie in George Romero’s Day of Dead, getting smarter and learning to salute.

The recent resurrection of Star Wars makes Death Troopers, a 2009 mash-up of Star Wars and zombie-mania, seem prophetic.

Death Troopers must have been a no-brainer pitch: use a hot genre to fashion a fresh approach to the standard business of the Expanded Universe Star Wars novels, which seem locked in a cycle of destroying the various children of Han and Leia Solo. That’s what I’ve heard, at least. My time scant spent with the Expanded Universe novels usually revolves around the world of the prequels and the classic series. Death Troopers falls into this category: it takes place approximately one year before the events of the first movie, a.k.a. Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope in the burdensome taxonomy of Lucasfilm. Death Troopers has plentiful gore and medical gruesomeness mixed in with fragments of the Star Wars universe and supporting roles for Han Solo and Chewbacca as the characters you know will survive whatever undead onslaught they face. Gorehounds and zombie fanatics with a taste for Star Wars won’t have much to complain about, but groups with marginal interest in either camp should resist the gimmick appeal.

Since the Star Wars universe has always had elements of fantasy to it (the Force in particular), resurrecting the dead wasn’t too hard a trick for author Joe Schreiber. He uses the “zombie virus” tactic, although scientifically the reason the dead bodies come back after the ravages of the disease receives only passing explanation. The illness causes horrible deaths, the bodies return to life a few hours later hungry for living flesh, spreading the infection with their bites, and eventually they develop enough intelligence to work together and pilot vessels (although not very skillfully). It’s the standard zombie playbook, plus poor X-Wing piloting.

The main setting is Purge, an Imperial prison barge and a rare view into the vilest side of the Galactic Empire’s tyranny. When Purge malfunctions, the captain arranges to dock with a Star Destroyer that for some reason is drifting aimlessly without life signs. Oh well, what could possibly go wrong? Send in a team to scavenge some parts from the floating hulk, and then get out.

The zombie mayhem doesn’t begin until past the first third. Until then, the plot is an outbreak story with squishy and gross details as a contagion aboard the Star Destroyer wipes out Purge’s crew and prisoners while chief medical officer Zahara Cody, who steps up as the main character, tries to get control of the situation. Zahara has her own demons to battle, of course (how else would you end up in the assignment of doctoring on an Imperial prison barge?) but has the company of “Waste,” a 2-1B medical droid. If you’ve seen The Empire Strikes Back, and you have, you’ll know this robot type: it’s the droid that tended to Luke after the Wampa attack. Waste provides the best character moments in the novel.

The other main characters are two prisoners, brothers Trig and Kale Longo; and Jareth Sartoris, the captain of the guard aboard Purge. Sartoris fills the role a hero-villain, a nasty character we root for to survive long enough so he’ll meet an appropriate death. The Longo brothers are coming from a recent tragedy as well, their father’s death aboard the ship.

Once the dead bodies start moving and munching, and Zahara finds Han Solo and Chewbacca in solitary, the novel shifts into chase-and-chomp territory, with a touch a mystery around the discovery of the origin of the virus and hints at what it might ultimately be for.

Schreiber is a horror author, so it won’t shock readers that where Death Troopers cooks is during baroque sequences of the grotesque and gory. If zombie horror in space is all that you care about, then that’s what you’ll receive. Schreiber has a knack for hatching up horror-filled tension set pieces, most notably a tactilely nasty scene of Trig Longo climbing over a mountain of dead flesh to escape from a relentless zombie stormtrooper. There’s also a hideous encounter with cannibals—living human cannibals, not zombies—that I’m thankful Schreiber did not carry too far. Both zombies and humans meet some grisly dispatches, and no opportunity for medical-based stickiness gets passed up. You think Wookie zombies shredding through fools might be cool? Well, you get that. And if you want a few horror-fan bonuses, Schreiber tosses in some gag names, like Quatermass and Phibes, for minor characters. (Both are far too obvious for my tastes.)

Schreiber’s feel for the Star Wars universe? Eh, it’s there. A bit. Han Solo and Chewbacca are really on autopilot, although they aren’t horribly written. Han seems more like his Return of the Jedi incarnation than the more callous survivor figure you’d expect before his encounter with the Rebellion. I can’t imagine the Han Solo of Death Troopers shouting, “Watch your mouth kid, or you’ll find yourself floating home!” I could have done without Han and Chewbacca entirely; they are hooks for Star Wars fans, and because we know they can’t die the sections with them don’t have much suspense.

Although published three years before the Disney purchase of Lucasfilm, Death Troopers feels like a pitch for one of the interstitial movies the Mouse House plans to make between the main saga movies like Episode VII. Limited to action aboard two ships and breaking away from space adventure, the book makes a fine template for a $40 million-or-so production. Of course, it won’t happen; not only does Disney have no interest in using the Expanded Universe novels as sources for their new movies, but there’s no way of getting an R-rated Star Wars film ever, especially a “hard” R with cargo bays full of grue. And that’s before even considering how the script would need to get around having a young Han Solo in the movie.

That’s unfortunate, because Death Troopers may not be a great novel, but it feels like it could be a fun cinematic departure on Star Wars. Reading about white-clad Imperial stormtroopers lurching around the corridors of a Star Destroyer as flesh-consuming zombies is nowhere near as fun as seeing it would be.

Failing the movie pitch, Death Troopers could translate smoothly to a survival horror video game. No need to worry about Han Solo casting in that case, and the confined spaces and levels inside a Star Destroyer almost write the code themselves.

Schreiber wrote a further Star Wars zombie story, Star Wars: Red Harvest, set during the Sith Era. Apparently nobody at Lucasfilm realized that Dashiell Hammett has a lock on the title Red Harvest. But I don’t plan to go near this spiritual follow-up to Death Troopers. This is about as much zombie fiction as I want to read for the next few years. Can’t we have more werewolves, Frankenstein monsters? I feel I’ve been making this plea for over a thousand generations