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Entries in George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead [2009] (1)


George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead, 2009 (Home Video Review)

The Island of Dr. Moron

It seems unbelievable, given the months of negative hype surrounding George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead, but I’m here to defend the movie.

Sort of.

There’s a widely accepted—and easily provable—notion that George Romero has lost it. Between 1968 and 1985, the visionary auteur created and defined the zombie horror genre with the classics Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. The movies were packed with social commentary, state-of-the-art gore effects (overlooking, of course, the 3M crayon blood in Dawn), and genuine scares. Though Dawn and Day were more adventure movies than horror, they evoked tension through claustrophobia and the gradual mental disintegration of the main characters. Romero took a couple decades off to work on other projects, and returned in 2005 with Land of the Dead—an uninspired action movie that happened to have zombies in it; a movie so bogged down in half-baked political allegory and low-rent computer-generated gore that it was almost unwatchable.

A couple years later, Romero returned with Diary of the Dead, a film shot entirely on hand-held video that brought the initial zombie outbreak into the new millennium. It was terrible, too.

But it wasn’t completely awful. In fact, there was a brief sequence where the main characters, a group of Pittsburgh film students fleeing cross-country in a Winnebago, are pulled over and robbed by a rogue group of National Guardsmen. This scene gave scope to a picture that felt like The Real World with dead people, and was one of maybe three bright spots.

Romero’s latest, Survival of the Dead, is a sequel to Diary, and while it’s not a good movie, it is the most interesting one the writer/director has turned out in twenty-five years. It starts off strong, with the head of the Guard unit, Sarge Crocket (Alan Van Sprang), talking about his encounter with the kids from Diary. The cool thing about his re-introduction is that we see a non-villainous side to Crocket. He’s an asshole, sure, but he’s all survival instinct. He’s pledged to lead what’s left of his unit to safety, and if that means stealing supplies and killing his own men when they mess up, so be it.

The plot of Survival is not so much complicated as it is too ridiculous to explain in brief. I’ll give you the Cliff’s Notes version, and you can decide for yourself if you want to continue reading. Crocket and his team end up on Plum Island, off the coast of Delaware, and find themselves caught in the middle of a long-running feud between two Irish families, the O’Flynns and the Muldoons. The families’ numbers have dwindled during the zombie apocalypse, so the main population of Plum Island now consists of a few old coots with thick Lucky Charms accents and their employees, who are duster-and-lasso sportin’ cowboys. That’s right, kids, Survival of the Dead is an Irish Western military drama about families fighting each other and the undead.

Oh, and zombies can ride horses now.

There are a lot of ideas swishing around this movie; most of them have been tackled before, either by Romero or by the superb zombie comedy Fido (the notion that the undead can be trained to perform menial tasks and have their appetite for flesh curbed). But with no clear statement of purpose—until the very end—the movie just comes off as a bizarre, chaotic mess.

So, how can I defend it? Survival of the Dead is a terrible zombie movie, especially compared to Romero’s earlier work. If I knew nothing about the man, and you were to show me Dawn of the Dead and Survival of the Dead—and tell me they were made by the same guy—I wouldn’t believe you. But it’s the ways that the new movie doesn’t work that make it entertaining.

If you think of this not as a Romero zombie movie, but rather as the pilot for a new TV show about The A-Team fighting zombies, then you may be able to enjoy it. The Guard unit is comprised of new takes on classic man-on-a-mission movie archetypes: There’s Tomboy (Athena Karkanis), the cool-headed strategist lesbian; Boy (Devon Bostick) is the snarky teenage tech whiz; Francisco (Stefano DiMatteo) is the overly religious Latin lover who speaks like Pepe the King Prawn from The Muppet Show; and, of course, there’s Crocket, whose nickname is “Nicotine”, because he’s always smoking.
Like The A-Team or The Incredible Hulk, or any of the dozen or so similar shows from the 80s, the Guard unit shows up and takes sides in a conflict; they help the “good” side out by using their military expertise and weaponry to defeat evil; and then they leave town for the next adventure. I thought Survival of the Dead was about Crocket and his crew, but it eventually devolves into a soapy Irish family drama and then a classic Western showdown picture. In the climax, after a twin sister revelation and a betrayal, we get several shots of Crocket standing around, looking confused, as if he remembered, “Hey, weren’t there zombies in this town once?”

Speaking of zombies, if the rumors are true that George Romero is looking to end his saga with two more films, is it too much to ask that he call up Greg Nicotero and have him supervise the special effects? Whoever decided to save money on practical effects and go with 85% CG needs to be tried, convicted, and burned alive on national television. The death scenes in Survival of the Dead are full-on Bugs Bunny gags, and you can tell that there was no attempt to be scary or even realistic. The few practical effects shots involve groups of zombies eating people alive—but we’ve seen all of it before and, frankly, filmed a lot better.

Make no mistake: Survival of the Dead is atrocious. But it is still much more entertaining than the last two Dead films, which made the mistake of either being way too serious or asking us to care about really annoying college kids. I recommend this movie for fans of incoherent storytelling and film students looking to plot the decline of a once great filmmaker. Everyone else should believe the hype and stay away.