[2 April 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For over four decades now, George A. Romero has been the guardian of all things eerie and undead. His zombie films remain the watershed for all horror wannabes, as well as the benchmarks for all appreciators of the cannibal corpse genre. While it’s clear that time has tempered his abilities, his recent efforts (Land of the…, Diary of the…) unable to match the brilliance of his terrific trilogy Night of the Living/Dawn of the/Day of the Dead, he’s still the best in the blood spattered biz. After seeing Survival of the Dead, however, some may question his continued reign. While not bad by any true scary movie standard, it seems further away from his macabre muse than ever before.
On the isolated offshore island of Plum, two groups of ragtag refugees are trying to survive the recent zombie apocalypse. On the one side is Seamus Muldoon and his kin, a clan that believes in trying to find a cure for the horrific “disease” is part of God’s plan. On the other is Patrick O’Flynn and his family, people who believe that the only good corpse is a dead one. For ages, they’ve waged a war of family values and bonds. Recent events have only worsened their redolent resolve. Into their battle for territorial and moral domination comes Col. Nicotine Crockett and his band of AWOL National Guardsmen. They just want a place to hole up and ride out the terror. But what they find on Plum could be far more frightening than any hungry member of the living dead.
Like Terminator: Salvation (which lacked a significant amount of deadly robot assassins) and Clash of the Titans 2010 (which truly skimped on both the Greek mythology and its associative Gods), Survival of the Dead is a George A. Romero zombie movie where the aforementioned reanimated creepies are secondary to the story. In fact, if it wasn’t for the few splatter setpieces peppered throughout the narrative, we’d have a hillbilly hoedown with some Nor-eastern Irish a-holes taking the place of the well-worn Hatfields and McCoys…and that’s it. Granted, there is nothing really wrong with the cornpone story Romero weaves. It’s part blood feud, part blood feast. But for someone who’s excelled at making his fright films into stinging social commentaries, our red gravy rodeo seems awful superficial and straightforward this time around.
Indeed, if Night tapped into the simmering civil rights movement (and its companion white flight paranoia), and Dawn dispensed with consumerism, if Day was all about the nightmare that was “morning in America” and Land was its logistical extension, Survival seems shortchanged. Even Diary dipped into the current technological rave-up, reinterpreting the end of the world as a real time Apocalyptic YouTube channel. But here, we see nothing but the bullheaded and stubbornness, decades of genealogical hatred and clannish behavior taking place amid an almost oblivious dismissal of the “dead”. Sure, Romero tries to keep them connecting, making the O’Flynn and the Muldoon argument over how best to handle the deceased, but the fact remains that zombies are the least of one’s concern here.
Sadly, the whole veiled vendetta aspect of the film is deeply flawed. Since the onscreen information tells us it’s been a mere three weeks since the outbreak, the lack of fear amongst the survivors is shocking. The undead can walk into frame and there’s nothing more than a ho-hum shoulder shrug, or at the most, a calm reactive gunshot. There’s none of the menace of previous Dead entries, none of the “anyone can die at any time by any means available” shock value. Instead, we get lots of Dublin brogues bellyaching about the will of God, the need to destroy the recently deceased, and the numerous imagined (and realized) atrocities that come from contemplating both. If Romero has a more political point here, he buries it in pseudo-spaghetti western beats that don’t deliver the necessary shivers.
Still, this is not a complete wash out. Whenever he is working with the zombies, Romero reestablishes his long admired mantle. There is a sequence where one character swims across a shallow harbor that puts a whole new spin on Land of the Dead‘s water-based terrors, and even with the help of CG, most of the kills are clever and quite nasty. We even get a chance to revisit the Diary of the Dead situation as the Internet and alternate means of connectivity are explored. In fact, Romero is really riffing on all his past efforts, from the military as mad men angle of Day, the semblance of normalcy craved in Dawn, and the rampant racial element that formed the foundation of Night (including a scene where some seedy rednecks reinvent the concept of ‘profiling’). We even get nods to Zack Synder’s recent remake as well as other hints at other horrors past and present.
Of course, the great ape in the room is that we really do expect more from Romero. We don’t want him to simply coast, to rest of his already ample laurels and wait until some studio steps up and gives him the money for his long-in-development zombie war epic (looks like Mel Brooks’ genre-loving son already beat him to that marketing punch). Maybe, at this point in his career, with nothing much left to prove, he is willing to underachieve and “go guerilla”, to work with a set of indie strictures and more or less do what he wants. After all, few people can claim an oeuvre that has literally redefined and reshaped an entire style of cinema. Without his previous films, the zombie would be nothing more than a hollow Haitian hackjob. With Romero, it remains the king of gore-drenched dread.
The modern monster movie truly owes a debt of undying (and undead) gratitude to this talented filmmaker. Survival of the Dead may not be one of his best, but it does illustrate that George Romero still has something to offer the fright film faithful. Unfortunately, they may be less than willing to work with him this time around.