George A. Romero's Survival of the DeadReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/28/10 13:52:05
At the end of his previous film, “Diary of the Dead,” George Romero offered up the image of his lone survivor locked up in a panic room with nothing else to do but fiddle around with the editing of the movie that she and her late friends had been working on--a project that started off as a schlocky, low-budget horror film and quickly turned into a documentary chronicling the early days of the world trying to cope with the fact that the dead were coming back to life with a taste for human flesh. Besides working as a nifty capper for a thoroughly underrated film, this ending also served as a potent metaphor for Romero’s entire career as well. Since bursting onto the scene in 1968 with his landmark “Night of the Living Dead,” he has made his mark as one of the most fascinating auteurs to work in the genre with his ability to juggle ambitious storylines, biting social commentary (no pun intended), complex characters that often defy genre expectations, a solid cinematic style in regards to both the scary set-pieces as well as the quieter moments and dark humor alongside the requisite amount of blood, guts and exploding body parts. However, despite the artistic success of such wonderful non-“Living Dead” films as “The Crazies,” “Martin” and “Bruiser,” it seems as if critics and audiences alike have no use for him unless he is doing a film dealing with zombies. After having spent years trying to break away from that particular niche, Romero seems to have finally embraced it as his legacy--after a twenty-year break between 1985’s “Day of the Dead” and 2005’s “Land of the Dead,” “Survival of the Dead,” his seventh and latest zombie epic, is his third film of this type to come along in the last five years. While I am glad to see him working at a more regular pace after the drought of the 1990’s that saw him complete only one full-length feature (“The Dark Half”) and one segment of a two-part collaboration with Dario Argento (“Two Evil Eyes”), the reduction of time between films to recharge his creative batteries now seems to be working against him--while it is still better than most recent American horror film, it is easily the least of the “Dead” films and lacks the snap and the provocative power of his best efforts. Let me put it this way: if there was a fire in a warehouse containing the negatives of all of his zombie films, this is the one that you could hold off rescuing until the end.Unlike the previous “Dead” films, in which the only tissue connecting them was the stuff rotting off of the bodies of the zombies at their center, “Survival of the Dead” not only picks up more or less where the last one, the back-to-basics franchise reboot “Diary of the Dead,” left off and even brings along some ancillary characters for the ride as well. As the film opens, a plague has overrun the country (and presumably the world) that is causing the recently deceased to return to life with an overwhelming compulsion to feed on the flesh of the living and it now appears that the dead now outnumber the living. The zombie problem has even reached Plum Island, a small locale off the coast of Delaware that appears to be populated entirely by two feuding Irish families--the O’Flynns and the Muldoons and their long-standing conflict has even grown to embrace the much bigger problems going on in the outside world. The O’Flynns, led by aging patriarch Patrick (Kenneth Walsh), believes that the only good zombie is a dead one, so to speak, and goes around with his self-appointed posse to bring down every one he sees and is perfectly willing to go through anyone who gets in his way. The Muldoons, on the other hand, are convinced that a cure will soon be found and believe that the best thing to do is to keep them alive, so to speak, until that day comes. Alas, the Muldoons outnumber the O’Flynns and so Patrick and his supporters are exiled to the mainland and certain death.
At the same time this is going on, a small band of AWOL soldiers, led by Sarge (Alan Van Sprang), are going along the Eastern Seaboard looking for a place to survive while robbing other survivors of their valuables in the belief that they will once again be worth something once society is restored.. (These soldiers made an appearance in “Diary of the Dead” when they showed up to loot our heroes.) On the internet, they come across a mysterious message inviting people to come to Plum Island and promising that it is completely zombie-free. It sounds too good to be true and when they arrive, it turns out to be a fake posted by Patrick and his men in the hopes of luring someone who will help them get back home and battle the Muldoons. Patrick finally convinces Sarge and his men to join up with him by telling stories of various Muldoon atrocities and when they arrive, it is clear that the local zombie problem has only gotten worse. It also turns out that Muldoon is less interested in curing the zombie problem as he has let on--although he is obsessed with the idea of convincing them to eat something other than human flesh, he is perfectly happy with using them as a form of slave labor in a new kind of community in which he is the unquestioned leader and is perfectly content with getting rid of anyone who tries to get in his way. Eventually, as is common in the “Dead” films, the survivors spend so much time fighting amongst themselves that they fail to recognize the real problem growing around them--the steadily increasing numbers of gut-munchers around them--until all hell breaks loose in the final reel with the staggering and the slurping and the insides becoming outsides and the whatnot.
As I mentioned before, Romero has never been content to allow his zombie-related projects to simply become vehicles for gruesome special effects and makeup designs--he has always endeavored to make them into something more than ordinary run-of-the-mill horror items by using the undead as a way of exploring and commenting on current societal concerns via intriguing and nicely developed characters, different stylistic approaches ranging from the epic visions of “Dawn of the Dead” and “Land of the Dead” to the more intimate take of “Diary of the Dead” and a willingness to explore, exploit and/or subvert the conventions of the horror genre at every turn. With “Survival of the Dead,” Romero attempts to continue with this approach but the end results are far less satisfying than in his previous efforts--the social commentary (such as the vision of zombies as slaves or undocumented workers and the notion that the survivors of a massive catastrophe will eventually fight amongst themselves over the last remaining scraps of humanity rather than unite for the future) is mostly on the level of a particularly uninspired college bull session, the characters are so unlikable and uninteresting that most people will find themselves rooting for the zombies (who at least have an excuse for their lack of personality) stylistic gambits (including making nearly all the characters into the kind of Irish people usually found in beer ads in mid-March and making it look like a western at certain points) are fairly silly and wind up distracting from the story at hand (especially the sight of a zombie riding a horse) and the genre subversions that he offers are nothing more than limp variations of ideas that he has already pursued in the past, such as the notion that the bad guy might have actually been right after all. Maybe it was the lack of time between projects to come up with some truly fresh ideas or maybe it is the simple fact that having already dealt with zombies in five previous films (six if you count the significantly rewritten screenplay that he contributed for the underrated 1990 remake of “Night of the Living Dead”), he may have finally run out of things to say about his beloved undead. Whatever the reason, this marks the first time in the long and venerated history of the “Dead” films that Romero has given us a screenplay as sloppy and shambling and in need of brains as his monsters
Another key flaw with the film is the zombies themselves and the fact that they simply aren’t very scary here. Granted, zombies have never been the most terrifying creatures to grace the silver screen--the impact of Romero’s has largely come from their massive numbers and the goriness of their attacks--but Romero has always managed to conjure some genuinely unnerving moments involving them over the years from the very first cemetery attack at the beginning of “Night of the Living Dead” to the extended hospital sequence in “Diary of the Dead” that mixed messy kills with an authentic sense of suspense. This time around, the zombies are less of a threat than ever--until the finale, there are never enough of them around at any given time to give us an impression of their numbers and Romero’s insistence on continuing with the “smart zombie” concept that he has been developing over the last few films (that they are gradually beginning to learn despite not possessing any real intelligence of note) only further robs them of their power to scare. Only at the end do they begin to make their presence known but the flashpoint for their final attack is so familiar by this point--after finding that their plans will no longer come to fruition, someone petulantly frees the creatures and allows them to gobble up everyone else--that the sequence lacks any real impact. On the other hand, Romero still has plenty of interesting ways of killing off zombies and the ways in which they are dispatched are among the film’s most memorable moments--yes, the effects are now a little two heavy on the CGI but this is one of those rare cases where the unreality is actually an asset instead of a liability.“Survival of the Dead” is not a particularly good movie and unless you are a Romero completist, there is no real reason for you to go and see it. However, even though I found it to be a bit of a disappointment, I didn’t come away from it feeling the kind of anger that I have felt with most of this year’s crop of cinematic letdown. For one thing, it is certainly a better and more ambitious work than such useless horror remakes as “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and Romero’s own “The Crazies.” For another, Romero has made so many good movies over the years that he has built up enough goodwill to get away with a lesser effort like this. Besides, the movie isn’t a total washout because there are a number of good things scattered here and there. As previously mentioned, his imagination when it comes to dispatching his zombie hordes remains unabated and there are plenty of gruesomely goofy dispatches on display to please the fans. There are also amusing bits of bloody black humor that pop up out of nowhere and score big laughs--I love the bit where Muldoon reminds his loyal aide-de-camp that he has been with him since his days working with livestock and the guy mutters “back when the livestock was livestock” and there is an interesting turn of events when it appears that a human has bitten a zombie instead of the other way around. Finally, while the final scenes won’t come as a surprise to anyone, Romero does come up with a haunting final image that says more in just a few seconds than the rest of the film has done in the previous 90 minutes. It is such a strong conclusion, in fact, that even though I can’t quite recommend “Survival of the Dead,” I cannot deny that I am ready to see whatever Romero has in store for his zombie mythology next as long he gives himself a bit of a rest before bringing out the dead again.
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