Lousy times make lousy people.
—Kenny (Eric Woolfe)
“We went AWOL right around the same time the rest of the world did,” snarls Nicotine Crockett (Alan Van Sprang). Once soldiers, now survivors, he and his comrades “became stick-up guys.” At the start of Survival of the Dead, they stop a Winnebago and climb on board to rob the kids inside. It so happens that these kids, “making a movie about themselves,” are the same kids who were at the center of the last Living Dead adventure, 2007’s Diary of the Dead.
Crockett explains an outcome of that moment you may not know, that his brief appearance in the kids’ movie “went out on the net,” and attracted millions of hits. “I became notorious,” he goes on, “I could have got an agent, made a fortune if there was anybody left to care.” But there’s not. And so his reverie cuts off when he glares at the camera and instructs, “Turn that the fuck off.”
Ah, if only it ended there. But no. Crockett and his friends get off the Winnebago and head off into their own movie… but not before a brief interlude that lays out in far too much uninteresting detail the next set of characters to be roped into Crockett’s orbit. These are the O’Flynns and the Muldoons, trying to sort out the start of the zombie plague on their little island off Delaware, called Plum. They’re feuding (and Irish, for an unknown reason), and their longtime dispute is sent into overdrive when they argue over whether to kill relatives who are now zombies, or let them live… until they die.
Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh) is especially inclined to terminate zombies as soon as they start sniveling, while Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) can’t bear to kill his kin, resulting in the unsettling appearance of his grisly-faced zombie kids chained to their beds. It’s a moral dilemma, or would have been if you didn’t know the inevitable outcome. This experiment of keeping zombies alive and shackled has already been tried, in 28 Days Later, where the specter of an abject Private Mailer (Marvin Campbell) which left little question as to the cruelty and immorality of his jailer, Major West (Christopher Eccleston).
In an effort to maintain this haven—for zombies and their parents, apparently—Seamus runs Patrick off the island. Back on the mainland, Patrick waits near his boat until Crockett’s team happens by. He convinces them to take him back to the island, where he means to reclaim something. While you might be thinking he’s interested in his good name, his home, or even his pride, it turns out that Patrick is also wanting to get back his daughter Janet (Kathleen Munroe), who has argued with him about killing zombie relatives and so stayed behind when he left Plum. His return—with a squad of well-armed men, plus the plainly named Tomboy (Athena Karkanis)—doesn’t so much help their reconciliation as it clarifies what’s at stake.
And that’s where the film takes its place in George Romero’s ongoing political critiques. The zombies provide reliable entertainment for fans and good work for makeup artists, but they’re also occasions for commentary, ranging for astute to mundane. This target this time is stubbornness, not only in this most obvious incarnation (the Hatfields-and-McCoys dynamic of the warring families on Plum), but also, more allusively, the dynamic that is replayed incessantly in the U.S. culture wars. Whether you call them conservatives versus liberals or, more recently, Tea Partiers versus Coffee Partiers, all sides claim moral high grounds, accurate analyses, and best solutions to any number of social-cultural-political dilemmas.
If O’Flynn isn’t precisely advocating death panels and Muldoon isn’t calling for “family values” and limited government, their clash is another casting of an intractable difference in beliefs and an insistence y each that his way is the only way. That the ex-soldiers arrive to sort things out—essentially, by shooting everyone they can—underlines the lack of options when individuals on opposing sides can’t hear one another talking.
It’s unhelpful that this basic notion, not news but not unworthy either, is so mired in familiar imagery. Zombies are always about loss of identity, loss of morality and loyalty, as well as loss of discretion. When these stakes-to-be-lost are not so well defined to start, when they go missing, you’re less inclined to notice.