Zero Lives Remaining review
So I wouldn’t normally start a book review with this, but I have to talk a bit about the presentation here, because it is outstanding. This limited-to-100 hardback print run is an absolute beauty in every way. The attention to detail in the VHS slip cover alone is demented - the peeling sticker effect on the notice promoting the bonus story, the ‘weathering’ on the edges of the spine, the 80’s rendering of the Shock Totem logo at the top, the use of authentic closed caption and hifi mono logos, the FBI warning - shit, even the copyright notice reads 1985. This book has been put together with a lot of love.
That continues to the inside, with the 6 signed ‘cast’ cards, the inlay card featuring an interview with one of the cast that’s rammed full of in-jokes for those familiar with Cesare’s work, and the book itself looks to my untrained eye to match damn near perfectly the dimensions of a VHS tape - complete with the ‘be kind, rewind’ sticker. The bar for limited edition hardbacks has well and truly been set with this release. Fantastic work.
So now, let’s talk about the story, shall we?
One of the things I’m really growing to love about Cesare’s writing is his range. Whilst there are certain themes that he’s clearly interested in (or possibly obsessed by) - cinema horror, the 80’s VHS ‘video nasties’ thing, and the logic and language of movies in general - he’s always making smart choices about narrative voice, to match the style of the book to the kind of story he wants to tell - the voice matches and informs the mood.
And so it is with Zero Lives Remaining - the voice is note perfect 80’s striving-B-movie. As is the setting - a haunted video arcade. It’s a story that makes perfect sense of the packaging - it’s the kind of story that would have come in such a package, had it come out in the 80’s..
Which is emphatically not to say that it’s bad - quite the reverse. Zero Lives Remaining crackles with energy and enthusiasm. The characters are superbly well drawn, and Cesare does a brilliant job humanising and personalising what could in lesser hands have been cardboard cutouts - the female korean gamer girl, the hoodie wearing male misfit, the arcade attendant with a hard luck story - and making them real, autonomous, and understandable. The misfit is a particularly inspired piece of work, actually - Cesare does a superb job of laying bare the internal mechanics of toxic masculinity with ruthless economy and just enough sympathy to allow the reader to understand the causes for the way the character behaves.
As the above suggests, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface B-movie aesthetic. That said, the story itself is as graceful and fast as a swan, all the work going on below the waterline. Cesare is a deceptively smart writer, and one of the ways he is smartest is in knowing how to do a lot with a little; he never belabours a point or overplays his hand, and keeps the plot rolling at an impressive pace.
Overall I found Zero Lives Remaining to be an impressive, enjoyable, smart, and well paced thrill ride. The backup short story, ‘So Bad’ is also a masterclass in short form horror, demonstrating a very different voice and an utterly fresh angle on the 80’s horror movie obsession. I loved this story when I first read it in Splatterpunk ‘Zine, and it was every bit as good as I remember - maybe better. An outstanding piece of work in its own right, and a lovely back up to the main event here.
Zero Lives Remaining is now available in paperback and e-book formats, though my sources at Shock Totem tell me the limited edition hardback has only a few copies left.
PS - I did NOT receive a copy of the hardback in exchange for this review. I bought it myself, because it looked awesome. I regret NOTHING.
Purchase a copy here