I guess I’m an old-school horror fan (or maybe I’m just old), but to this reviewer the theatrical opening of a new George Romero “Dead” movie is still a big deal. Always has been, always will be. And that’s why, even though his latest, George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead has been available for purchase online and on demand on cable for a couple of weeks now (it also opened theatrically in Europe about a month before it did here in the US) and I’ve been chomping at the bit to see it, I’ve resisted. I wanted to see it on the big screen, with an audience (an audience, it should be noted, that’s probably been pretty effectively boiled down to nothing but Romero die-hards like myself after the — shall we say — less than enthusiastic reception for Diary of the Dead) — because damnit, even though this opening wasn’t an “event,” per se, it still counts as one in my book. I guess I’m just stubborn like that.
So the question now is — was it worth the wait? Obviously the theatrical release, limited as it is, can only be described as formality on the part of Magnolia Pictures and their Magnet imprint — they know this thing isn’t gonna recoup its costs in theaters, and it’ll probably be gone in a week. Like so much indie horror, they’re counting on alternative “viewing platforms” providing nearly all of the audience for this film. And so it goes. 42 years (think about that for just a second — 42 fucking years! This guy has been making zombie films for nearly half a century!) after Night of the Living Dead, the creator of the modern zombie genre is well and truly back to his independent roots, albeit for completely different reasons than those that prevailed in 1968.
Back then, Romero was just a young guy who made local TV commercials in the Pittsburgh area and there was no reason for Hollywood to take a chance on him. He had to go it alone and find independent distribution for his film because that was the only choice had had. Today, he has to go the independent route because there’s a sense that the times have passed old George by, and that he just doesn’t “have it” anymore.
As is my wont to do with conventional “wisdom,” your humble host is here to piss all over that notion.
Survival of the Dead picks up immediately after the events in 2007’s Diary of the Dead, so rather than viewing this as Romero’s sixth “Dead” film (even though it is), it’s probably best to think of it as the second film in his second “zombie cycle,” since Diary took us back to the beginning. Our focal point here character-wise is the ragtag renegade National Guard unit-turned-highwaymen we met briefly in Diary when they held up the fleeing students’ RV. Thanks to the wonder of internet cell phone connections, they’ve learned about a place called Plum Island, off the coast of Delaware, that’s supposedly a zombie-free paradise.
When our ragtag band of Uncle Sam’s formerly-finest led by Sergeant “Nicotine” Crockett (Alan Van Sprang) arrives at the ferry crossing to the island, though, they find they’ve been set up by the crusty old Irish sailor who sent out the internet greeting to the world, one Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh), who intends to trade safe passage to the island for — well — everything they’ve got, which in this case happens to include a million bucks’ cash.
Needless to say, the Sarge and his boys (and one girl, a lesbian solider nicknamed, drearily enough, “Tomboy” and played by Athena Karkanis) aren’t going for this and a battle ensues between O’Flynn and his cohorts, the renegade military unit, and whatever zombies happen to be mulling about on the ferry.
After “Tomboy” saves O’Flynn’s life, they all make sorta-nice and head for Plum Island together — there’s just one problem. O’Flynn’s become persona non grata there since he and the patriarch of the other large island clan, a hard-ass named Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) don’t exactly see eye to eye on how best to deal with the undead menace. O’Flynn’s a shoot-’em-all-in-the-head sort of guy, while Muldoon wants to train them to eat something other than human flesh if possible and keep ’em around for — well, I dunno, domestication, I guess, although he’s big into family, as well, and probably just doesn’t like the idea of pumping lead into the skulls of his loved ones if he doesn’t have to, even if they are, you know, dead. The fact that the two families have a generations-long blood feud going on between them (think of them as the Irish version of the Hatfields and the McCoys) doesn’t help matters, either.
The families have shared the island uneasily over the years, with the O’Flynns making their living as fishermen while the Muldoons have earned their livelihood as ranchers (I didn’t know ranching was a big thing in Delaware, but there you have it). So anyway, the premise has some holes in it (and the amount of inbreeding on the island must be crazy).
It’s also, dare I say it, repetitious — essentially what we’ve got going on here is the exact same set-up as Romero’s earlier Day of the Dead, although this time the roles are reversed. In Day, the people who wanted to attempt to domesticate the walking corpses were the smart (if still crazy) ones — the “heroes” of the story, if you will. This time around, they’re the unscrupulous assholes. And while this time Romero’s got a whole island to play around with rather than Day‘s underground military research bunker, it doesn’t change the fact that premise-wise, we’re pretty much in firmly familiar territory here.
Other problems persist : while most of the acting is certainly competent (something that couldn’t be said for Diary), the OTT stereotypical Irish accents do start to grate after awhile, and make O’Flynn and Muldoon feel more like caricatures than fully-fleshed-out characters. The time frame is problematic as well : this supposedly takes place just six days after the dead started walking, yet Muldoon has hatched his plan to try to coexist (or maybe that should be enslave) the zombie hordes pretty damn quickly. Also, the zombies exhibit the type of familiar-to-their-real-lives actions (think Bub from Day “Big Daddy” from Land of the Dead) that, in previous Romero lore, it took them years to come around to (there’s a hysterical scene with a chained-up living dead mailman delivering the same letters to the same box over and over again).
Still, there’s an awful lot here Romero gets right. The zombies themselves have an unknown quality to them that’s been missing for some time, and there’s a sense that the standard “Romero rules” may not necessarily apply across the board. the effects work, apart from a couple of crap CGI sequences, are generally good, and the blood-n’-guts are handles with the level of aplomb we’ve come to expect. the interactions beween the characters are handled in a pleasingly naturalistic manner, giving us real insight into how real people deal with the by-now-done-to-death scenario of a “zombie apocalypse.” And of course, the question of who’s actually worse, them or us — a staple of Romero’s flicks from the beginning — is brought to chillingly effective life through the demented actions of Seamus Muldoon and his clan.
The family blood feud adds an interesting wrinkle, as well, and gives us a look at a heretofore unexplored facet of life in world overrun by the dead — how the tensions of a new and altogether deadly situation can either serve to transcend age-old tensions (think of Yugoslavia — everyone was pretty much united in their hatred of the Soviet interlopers, yet the minute the dreaded commies were gone all the age-old ethnic tensions came bubbling back to the surface resulting in — well, you know) or, in this case, exacerbate them even further.
As with Diary, given the proximity of events here to the beginning of the shambling-corpse onslaught, the zombies themselves aren’t as “far gone” in appearance as they were in movies like Day and Land. they’re more at the level of physical putrefaction we saw in Dawn on the Dead, although there’s more overall goriness to their look than the simply greyish-blue facepaint many of them sported in that classic film.
As for the conclusion, well, that’s right outta Day as well, with the zombies kept as “research subjects” by Muldoon turned loose to wreak havoc on the island, with the added wrinkle here being that against this backdrop the blood feud between his kinfolk and the O’Flynn’s is finally settled once and for all (or is it? I don’t want to give too much away, but the film’s final scene does show that age-old enmity carries on even after death. I’ll say no more and have probably said too much already). As for the survivors (such as there are) from our now-freelance National Guard crew, well, that’s where we get another interesting wrinkle on Day‘s premise — rather than escaping to an island at the end, these folks decide to get the hell off the island. One major problem with the ending that I won’t divulge too many details about — Romero’s trademark social commentary, which had been pleasingly relegated to a more figure-it-out-for-yourself status (as opposed to the pounding-you-over-the-head-with it he did in Diary) really does take over and get pretty damn preachy for the last minute or two. It’s not enough to dimish your overall enjoyment of what is, aforementioned niggles aside, still a well-done zombie flick, but why George can’t just trust his audiences enough to figure out what he’s saying anymore (it’s never too far in the background, after all) is beyond me. He achieves the classic balance between horror and sociopolitical allegory throughout this film, then breaks his old sledgehammer from Diary back out for the conclusion.
And speaking of Romero as social commentator, while it does get admittedly heavy at the tail end, it’s still, on the whole, pleasing to see that he hasn’t abandoned this angle to his cinematic storytelling. You go into a George Romero “Dead” film expecting sociopolitical allegory, after all, whether it be Night of the Living Dead‘s none-too-subtle parallels with race relations at the time and its firm stance in support of black civil rights, Dawn of the Dead‘s absolutely blistering (yet, perhaps paradoxically, quite understated) critique of consumerism, Day of the Dead‘s exploration of Reagan-era militarism and the Cold War “bunker mentality,” Land of the Dead‘s savaging of Bush-era “War on Terrorism” bullshit and the outright evil that is gated “communities” (an oxymoron if ever there was one), or Diary of the Dead‘s annoyingly-overstated-yet-nonetheless-spot-on take on both the voyeurism and, ironically enough I suppose, narcissism at the heart of today’s YouTube-style “culture” of “emerging media.”
While Survival of the Dead doesn’t exactly tackle any new symptoms of our overall cultural malaise, mining instead, as mentioned (or at least implied) the same thematic ground as Day, taking that exploration of “bunker mentality”-style tribalism and nativism out of a Cold War setting and transposing it into today’s world of racist Arizona immigration laws, ugly nationalism and xenophobia expressed in the form of right-wing “Tea Party” pseudo-populism, and anti-Muslim hysteria, isn’t necessarily indicative of any creative bankruptcy on Romero’s part, it just shows that he understands that while circumstances may have changed, the essential dangers inherent in any sort of “us-vs.-them” mentality persist.
As you’ve probably been able to gather by now, Survival of the Dead is shy, by several orders of magnitude, of being the absolute spot-on classic that Romero’s first three “Dead” films were. But enough of what makes those movies so movies so undeniably compelling, even after all these years, is still here — the characterization, the sociopolitical analysis, the technical expertise in terms of editing and pacing, the humor, the heart, and, yes, the splatter — to make it well worth your time. Modern zombie flicks, be they comedies like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, action-thrillers like the Resident Evil films, or contemporary thoughtful meditations on the human condition in the face of apocalypse like the 28 Days and Weeks Later all have bits and parts of the George Romero legacy in there somewhere, but to date no one has been able to combine each of those various elements to achieve all the possibilities inherent in the zombie film in the way that the man himself has done — and continues to do. Survival of the Dead isn’t on the same level as his best work, but it’s still miles ahead of what anyone else has been able to accomplish within the genre he created.