Written and Directed by: George Romero
Starring: Alan Van Spring, Kenneth Welsh, Kathleen Munroe, and Richard Fitzpatrick
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“Last time anyone counted, 53 million people were dying every year, 150,000 every day, 107 every minute. It's become an 'Us vs. Them' world..."
Like the corpses of the re-animated dead that he helped to popularize, George Romero and his career have been resurrected in the past decade. After dabbling in a few non-zombie films for twenty years, he's returned to deliver three new Dead films in the span of five years. The long-awaited Land of the Dead showed that Romero hadn’t lost too much since the undead had their Day in 1985, but 2007’s Diary of the Dead was a bit more of a disappointment. Now he’s back with Survival of the Dead, which is only now making its way to home video after a festival circuit run and a video-on-demand stint.
Six days after the dead began to rise, a solider that we first met in Diary, Sarge Crocket (Van Spring), has grown weary of toiling away for the military. He and his rag-tag band decide to head south and find an island off the coast of Delaware. When they arrive on the island, they find themselves in the middle of a couple of clans who have been feuding for as long as anyone can remember: the Muldoons and the O’Flynns. Ever since the dead began to walk, the two sides have disagreed about how to deal with the undead. The former clan wants to keep them alive in hopes of finding a cure, while the latter wants to destroy them immediately.
Appropriately enough, Survival of the Dead shambles around a bit aimlessly, haphazardly supported by a bunch of rehashed ideas. At its core, it’s the same old story Romero has been telling since Ben and Barbara entered that old farmhouse in 1968. Here, it’s filtered through an ancient rivalry reminiscent of the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons from Huck Finn. Like those clans in Twain’s novel, the O’Flynns and Muldoons have been fighting for centuries for no particular reason. Romero places it in an undead context to highlight the absurdity of the whole thing, and it works on a pretty basic level. It’s a commentary on the pettiness and destructive nature of such fighting on a larger scale, and the sort of old-west, Hatfield/McCoy aesthetic is a bit different for the series. It’s superficial at best and reveals that Romero is pretty much running on fumes at this point.
There’s a distinct lack of purpose or spark here; though Diary exhibited the same sort of regurgitation, it at least had something to say about media manipulation. Here, we’re just left with the basic notion that mankind is more dangerous to itself than anything else. I suppose Romero must think we didn't get the message the first five times, so he’s at his least subtle here. Though subtlety hasn’t always been a strong point, he never needed characters to spell out exactly what he was trying to say, as he does in the closing moments in Survival. There’s an admittedly interesting extension of an idea he started in Land--the notion that the undead will eventually completely relearn how to be “us”; it’s taken to an even more extreme level here, as the island baron Muldoon chains them down and has them do mundane tasks in an attempt to reclaim normalcy. It’s as nuts as it sounds, and highlights the absurdity of conservatism and not letting go. Not that his counterpart, O’Flynn, is any more sane, of course; in typical Romero fashion, everything goes to hell in a bloody mess of guts and grue.
I guess that’s my cue to remind you that there are, in fact, zombies to be found here. They’re probably as marginalized as ever here, taking more of a backseat to all the drama. Likewise, the designs of the undead are pretty plain, and the violence they commit is the typical fare: some jugular bites and a nasty disemboweling are among the highlights. Also be prepared to see a lot of the dead get a bullet to the head too, along with some more creative zombie kills (most of which are sadly diluted by some poor CGI work). There’s a pretty nice scene towards the end where the undead are finally loosed, though it pales to the climactic carnage of previous entries in the Dead saga.
Romero’s direction has never been a strong point, and it does little to help the film rise above its mediocre story. Everything is competent enough, and the photography is moody and atmospheric at times, but it’s mostly a pretty plain looking affair whose DTV roots are obvious. As expected, this tries to be a character-driven film, but the huge ensemble results in some thinly-developed characters. The actors bringing them to life range from solid to subpar, and it doesn’t help that they’re saddled with some clunky dialogue at times. Toss in a rushed, by-the-numbers plot that only manages a couple of surprises, and it feels like you’re walking down a well-worn path. Romero has led us down it before, but here he’s also spoon-feeding us every bit of the way and even feels a bit tired himself.
It’s odd to think that we might be living in a world where a new Romero Dead movie brings more fears than hopes, but that seems to be the case. With two misfires behind him, one can only hope that he somehow gets himself back on track for his next couple of efforts (he says he’s got two more left in him). Survival comes home courtesy of Magnet Releasing on both DVD and Blu-ray. The high-def offering is solid, as the transfer is pristine, and the DTS-MA surround track will immerse you in the film. Special features include an introduction and commentary from Romero, a “Walking After Midnight” documentary, a short film, behind-the-scenes shorts, storyboard comparisons, a Fangoria interview, a “How to Create Your Own Zombie Bite” feature, and an HDNet look at the film. It’s a fairly stacked package that might be among the best presentations of any of Romero’s films; it’s a shame that Survival of the Dead itself doesn’t quite stack up. Instead, it just sort of lumbers along and occasionally shows glimpses of former glory; while you won't immediately feel compelled to take it out behind the barn and put it down, one night with this one will be more than enough. Rent it!
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