Romero Retrospective: Survival of the Dead

Well, folks.  The time has finally come.  To be honest, I had been avoiding doing this for some time, using work, errands, and other activities as an excuse to procrastinate.  But now, to quote an elegant phrase from Woody Harrelson in the film Zombieland, “it’s time to nut up, or shut up.”  Yes…this is George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead.

Survival isn’t just for the living…

The Good

Carrying on the tradition of the Diary of the Dead reboot, the year 2010 saw the release of George Romero’s latest and most critically controversial film in the form of Survival of the Dead.  By taking advantage of the tax breaks available in his new home of Ontario, Canada (hailed by some as the new Hollywood), Romero brings us an American/Canadian production that attempts to pass off Port Dover and Toronto as the Eastern seaboard of the United States, with mixed results.

One of the positive aspects of this film, and one which sets it apart from the first four installments, is the direct continuity between characters and events in the new story and the happenings described in its predecessor.  In fact, we start off with a familiar face from the previous film, with Alan van Sprang (who also played a presumably unrelated part in Land of the Dead) reprising his role as National Guard Sergeant ‘Nicotine’ Crockett.  One might be forgiven for failing to recall this minor character from the previous film, and so a flashback using archive footage informs us that the Sarge is actually the no-nonsense leader of the band of rebel soldiers who raided the Winnebago of our heroes in Diary.  After a brief explanation of the reasons behind his departure from the rest of the National Guard, the scene switches to Plum Island, a small settlement off the coast of Delaware that has served as a battleground for generations of two feuding Irish families, the O’Flynns and the Muldoons.  The two clans are divided over the issue of how to deal with the sudden surge in the island’s population of walking corpses, with leader Patrick O’Flynn (a fine performance by Kenneth Welsh) advocating swift judgment from the business end of a 12-guage, and his rival Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) preferring to preserve the zombies for as long as possible until a cure for their condition may be found.  A face-off between the two factions results in Patrick O’Flynn’s exile from the island with a few of his cronies, while his daughter Janet (Kathleen Munroe) decides to stay behind.

We cut forward to the Sarge and his crew, who discover through a young man known only as Boy (Devon Bostick) that there is an island safe from the zombie outbreak.  As it turns out, the island is Plum Island, and Patrick O’Flynn is only using the promise of an undead-free haven as bait to lure in survivors that can be looted for their valuables and sent to the island to cause trouble for the Muldoons.  After a brief battle, the Sarge’s gang manages to avoid O’Flynn’s trap and gain control of a ferry to the island.  The stubborn Irishman manages to get aboard, however, and an uneasy truce is formed as O’Flynn explains the situation on the island.

Back on Plum Island, we find that Janet has become a zombie who, interestingly enough, has decided to abandon the peripatetic pursuits of her putrefying pals in favor of more equestrian endeavors.  But wait!  Janet is still among the living, and it turns out that the undead doppelganger is actually her dearly departed twin sister, Jane.  Under Muldoon control, the island has become a farcical parody of its former rural beauty, as chained-up zombies attempt to go about the daily routines that they once took part in, while the rest of the ghouls are rounded up like cattle for Seamus’ experiments.  It appears that the self-righteous coot is convinced that the flesh-eating corpses can be broken of their cannibalistic tendencies and encouraged to feed on a diet of animal meat.  When the Sarge’s best friend Kenny (Eric Woolfe) is killed by one of Muldoon’s scouts, the game is on as he and his ragtag group attempt to take control of the island.

Mayhem ensues, and after a series of altercations the final showdown takes place at the Muldoon ranch. Seamus has Jane penned up with a horse in a last-ditch effort to prove his theory once and for all by having O’Flynn’s zombified daughter take a bite out of the animal.  Janet attempts to reach out to her undead twin, with predictably tragic results, and all hell breaks loose.  The other captive “dead-heads” are freed, the islanders fall prey to the rotting hordes, and the two clan leaders gun each other down, each refusing to submit to reason to the last.  The film ends with the Sarge and his remaining followers leaving the island while, unbeknownst to them, the zombies finally begin to feed on the ill-fated horse and prove that their hunger can indeed be sated with non-human flesh.

Heavily inspired by the Western epic, The Big Country (1958), the film offers up some spectacular views and dramatic camerawork that truly give credit to Romero’s skills.  Despite the higher budget ($4 million), the special effects don’t seem to go that much further than Diary, but still manage to be effective (like most other aspects of the film).

The Bad

So we’ve established that the film is effective…but how well does it carry on the legacy of the past installments?  Unfortunately, it is my opinion that Survival of the Dead stands as the least satisfying of the entire Dead series.  What makes it so underwhelming?  Well, get out your autopsy gloves, because we’re about to find out just what killed this promising addition to the zombie genre.

First of all, I have often pointed out that the strength of George A. Romero’s Dead films has always been in its powerful characterization.  A few identifiable characters drive the stories through realistic and (usually) believable dialogue, all of which is underpinned by stark imagery and gritty realism.  The people in the films rarely had to engage in expository dialogue or wax philosophical to get the point across.  Intelligent audiences could form their own conclusions about the social and cultural implications of the deeper mechanisms that lie behind the idea of a plague of undead and the plight of its survivors.  I also mentioned in my last review that my biggest problem with Diary was the fact that we in the audience are continuously battered with trite observations and pseudo-philosophical ramblings that tell us exactly what we are expected to think about a particular scene, and the questioning nature of the narrator only underscores the fact that we are being spoon-fed a CliffsNotes version of the sociological impact of a zombie apocalypse.  My review of goes into more detail about this subject, but in the end I realized that the very idea of a homemade documentary was a key element in conveying the ultimate message of the film, and paradoxically enabled the audience to assume an even deeper message that exists in a dialectic relationship with the incessant voices that bombard us throughout the narrative.

Where Diary succeeded, however, Survival ultimately fails.  Without the raison d’être of narration in a documentary film created by the characters, the Sarge’s disembodied voice simply ends up being distracting, and marks the first instance of such narrative framing in a Dead film.  This is not my only gripe, however.  Sarge’s gang and the Plum Island residents seem like casts from two separate films: the modern post-apocalyptic film, and the old-timey Hatfield-McCoy drama.  It becomes difficult to suspend disbelief and assume that such an island existed in 2010, and the O’Flynns and Muldoons seem more like cardboard cut-outs whose only purpose is to illustrate the film’s ultimate message.

So what is it?  What is the exact point where Survival of the Dead jumps the undead shark and loses its relevancy as a successor of the noble Dead legacy?  I have pinpointed the exact moment at the very end of the film, when the Sarge gives us this line: “In an us-versus-them world, someone puts up a flag; another person tears it down and puts up his own. Pretty soon no one remembers what started the war in the first place and the fighting becomes all about those stupid flags.” To punctuate this ham-fisted statement, we are treated to an image of a grassy hillside on Plum Island.  Looming beyond the horizon is an impossibly enormous moon, hanging ominously over the scene as zombie Seamus Muldoon and zombie Patrick O’Flynn face each other across the grassy plain, raise their guns, and pull the triggers.  The clicks of two empty chambers are the only sounds as the credits begin to roll.

The Undead

Unfortunately, I found that the walking (and riding) dead in Survival also contributed to the film’s lackluster performance, and only enhance the lack of relevancy found in this installment of the franchise.  Ironically enough, George Romero sums it up when he admits that the actual zombies themselves are less of an actual serious threat, and more of a passing annoyance.  The idea that the ghouls do what they were prone to do while still breathing has been explored brilliantly in Dawn, Day, and Land of the Dead, and this aspect isn’t really so much emphasized as briefly commented on in this latest effort.  Dawn of the Dead certainly had its share of humor, with the raiding gang using pies and seltzer water for comedic antics with the stenches at the end of the film, but at this point the flesh-eaters have been reduced to nothing more than glorified gag props.  One zombie has the contents of a fire extinguisher unloaded into his mouth until the foam bursts out of his ears and eye sockets.  Another undead gets stabbed through the forehead with a pronged fork (holding a wiener, no less), while yet another has an emergency flare stabbed into his chest, which somehow results in his head glowing and then bursting into flames along by the rest of his body.  Patrick O’Flynn even passes a stick of dynamite to an unsuspecting zombie behind a door, closing it on him and running off as the shack explodes behind him.  These Wile E. Coyote shenanigans run rampant throughout the film, and diminish any actual threat that the zombies may have originally posed.   Their sociological significance has been pushed aside in favor of what the director himself refers to as Looney Toons slapstick, and even the plot thread of the undead potentially feeding on animals has been touched on in other films (as a corpse can be seen munching on a centipede in the original Night of the Living Dead).

If humor was the sole purpose, then the film merely comes off as a late-comer to the party, joining the spate of comedic zombie films in the post-Shaun of the Dead cinematic world.  As a serious film, it fails to offer anything new to the genre and doesn’t have the strong characterization required to make the audience genuinely care about the people or their situations.  The zombies are marginal at best, and completely irrelevant at worst.  The anti-war message is so heavy-handed as to reduce its potential poignancy.  So what are we left with?  In the end, I would say that Survival of the Dead is an average zombie film, filling in the ranks and files of imitators and spinoffs among horror films these days.  Is it a terrible film?  Certainly not, but I would venture to say that when the latest installment of a series seems more like a poorly made imitation of the original that started it all, it isn’t a good sign, especially when we’re talking about a Romero film.  I have the utmost respect for Romero as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and as such, I hope to see more inspiring efforts in the future from the Grandfather of the Zombie.

And so, this concludes my six-part Romero Retrospective.  I hope that you enjoyed the journey, and I would be delighted if you would join me again soon as I continue to look back on other influential zombie films of the past!

And last but not least, my Black Veil report has recently been featured on the blog of my dear friend and Gothic Lolita fashion queen La Carmina.  Check it out here!

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