Survival of the Dead (2009)
Director: George A. Romero
4 / 5 zedheads
NOTE: My review of Survival of the Dead first appeared as an audio segment on episode #86 of MAIL ORDER ZOMBIE. Head on over to www.mailorderzombie.com and subscribe to the show!
For the most part, Survival of the Dead is an incredibly satisfying installment in Romero's recent slate of modern zombie films. Surprisingly fun, although at the expense of some horror elements, Survival is the best film Romero's produced since Day of the Dead (1985). Presented in Survival is a purposely broad allegory for conflict and tribalism told with humorously over-the-top characters and some of the best and most creative zombie attacks seen in a Romeo film in years.
Survival of the Dead is a direct sequel to Diary of the Dead (2007). Alan Van Sprang plays “Sarge" (although this name may be changed in the credits by the time that the film is released). Sarge leads a small group of AWOL soldiers who get by as scavengers and thieves (the same thieves led by Sprang we see in Diary robbing the protagonists of that film). Sprang encounters Patrick O'Flynn (Kenneth Welsh), the manipulative and strong-willed patriarch of the O'Flynn family from the rural community of Plum Island. O'Flynn has been exiled by his rival on the island, Shamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), because of a dispute over how to deal with the returning dead. O'Flynn wants to put bullets in their brains and put them back in the ground whereas Muldoon wants to keep the dead “alive” if they show promise of learning to eat something other than people. Muldoon has noticed that certain zombies seem to repeat the actions they did in life -- chopping wood for instance. He sees this hint of memory as a sign that the zombies can be saved. As a result, Muldoon and O'Flynn come to blows and O'Flynn is forced off the island. On the mainland, O'Flynn enlists the aid of Sarge and his men to take the fight back to Muldoon on Plum Island.
I saw Survival of the Dead at its North American premiere on September 12th as part of the Toronto International Film Festival. Aside from the central question of whether the film would be any good, going into the Festival I couldn't help but ponder a much broader question. How do you begin to rate a new George A. Romero zombie movie given his large body of work? Do you compare Survival to the starkly dark tale of horror that is the original Night of the Living Dead (1968)? Do you compare it to the action-adventure zombie siege with hints of satire, slapstick, and comic book sensibilities that is the original Dawn of the Dead (1978)? What about the gory horror drama of ideas that is Day of the Dead (1985)? Given that each Romero film is different, to review Survival, I thought about three central criteria I've come to expect from all Romero zombie films: was it fun, did it make me think, and did it make me fear the dead?
Was it fun?
Survival of the Dead is perhaps the most fun film Romero has produced since Dawn of the Dead. It lacks the scope and the emotional sincerity of Dawn, but Survival is infused with a similar larger-than-life quality. This larger-than-life quality comes from a combination of the film's majestic Canadian scenery, enjoyable scene-chewing courtesy of Sprang, Welsh, and Fitzpatrick, a Western movie atmosphere, and countless exaggerated and inventive zombie kills. Make no mistake, however: Survival does not offer Dead Snow or Evil Dead levels of over-the-top zombie mayhem, yet the zombie violence is surprisingly gleeful for a Romero movie. Look for the zombie dispatched by a flare gun!
The acting may be nothing groundbreaking although every character who is supposed to be likable is likable, and every character who is supposed to be a caricature is an enjoyable caricature. Also, the trademark Romero-isms are clearly present, but Romero's small attempts at introducing some new new visuals and scenarios into his zombie films really carries this movie from a rating of 3.5/5 to a solid 4/5 zed heads. There's one scene in particular that turns the zombie-bites-man scenario on its ear.
Did it Make Me Think?
Romero is known for infusing his zombie movies with social messages and symbolic metaphors. Sometimes this is delivered in a deft fashion as with his criticism of commercialism in Dawn of the Dead; other times it burdens his movies as in Diary of the Dead. Let's be honest, Romero's ideas are not genius; we've heard before -- the genius is that he found a way to let the image of the zombie act as a fertile vessel for his social criticisms. When he loses focus on letting the narratives and zombies deliver the social messages and instead makes his human characters deliver the messages, his movies usually don't work. Thankfully, Survival of the Dead offers a very general social criticism about tribalism and the escalation of aggression. An interpretation of the conflict on Plum Island between the Muldoon and O'Flynn clans could just as easily be applied to Palestine and Israel or China and Japan. It also works as a general stand-in for issues of "us vs. them" violence be it racial, religious, or class-based.
More interesting than the message of the film is a new twist on zombie behavior that Romero introduces. Perhaps "twist" is not the best word as the foundation of this new revelation has been around since the very first Night of the Living Dead although forgotten by most zombie fans. A minor scene in Night that most have discarded as a mistake can now be viewed as canon and justification for a new take on the nature of zombies and their capabilities. In this way, Survival of the Dead is most interesting for the way it continues to add and explore subtle new dimensions of the Romero zombie depicted in his dead series.
Did it Make me Fear the Dead?
Confession time: Although I love zombies, they rarely scare me in the movies. Don't get me wrong: the idea of zombies is one of the most terrifying concepts I can think of, but the way zombies are depicted rarely makes me feel the same kind of dread I get when I contemplate the concept of zombies. Few books and fewer movies since Night have managed to capture the pure horror of zombies. Yes, Dawn of the Dead is a classic, but the zombies are doofy.
That being said, Romero has known this for a long time. In most of his films, it is not the zombies we should fear but one another. This is best shown in Survival of the Dead where the dead are treated almost as if they are an infestation of pests. Like rats or snakes, the zombies infest every dark area and corner of the world. They don't appear to be actively hunting you as a lion might stalk and chase its prey across the plains. Instead, the zombies go about their business until you wander into their territory or they into yours. Then they will tear your ass apart. This approach to zombies, which continues to break away from the 28 Days Later model of zombie attacks, makes the zombies more of a background danger. Most times, people can avoid and outwit the zombies, but for the majority of the film people encounter the zombies while also trying to escape or hunt down some other person. The zombies just make high-stress conflicts more difficult since zombies lie in wait to turn every bad decision and mistake into a fatal error.
While I can not say I feared the dead in Romero's Survival, they are used to good effect. Several points in the film do manage to execute some effective jump-scares and weave an atmosphere of anxiety because the threat of zombies waiting around the corner is ever-present. In the end, Survival is less scary and atmospheric than Night or Day, but has more of an action-adventure tone like Dawn and Land of the Dead (2005).
Despite its minor flaws, Survival of the Dead is an enjoyable zombie movie. Diary of the Dead may have been too disappointing to forgive, but with Romero's new film he shows that his vision of the zombie has a lot of life left in it. Although commentators have poked fun at the the film's title for being nonsensical, the film makes at least one thing very clear: Romero's zombie series has survived Diary of the Dead and is back in good shape.
Long live the Romero Zombie!