George A. Romero’s latest excursion into the land of the living dead is reminiscent of the 1990 version of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (which he wrote but did not direct): like that remake, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD is a reasonably entertaining variation on a familiar theme, although it is lacks the inspiration that would make it stand as an original in its own right. Instead, it’s the same old formula, with the usual Romero twists: once again, the walking dead are the catalyst for human conflict; the focus is as much on the drama as the horror; the genre elements are used to express broadly stated social critique. These conceptual elements make SURVIVAL more than just another zombie movie, but the execution could use some kind of original vision to distinguish the film from its predecessors. Unlike the recent DIARY OF THE DEAD, whose back-to-basics approach (after the larger scale LAND OF THE DEAD) reinvigorated Romero, providing a fresh take on the old material, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD evinces only anonymous professionalism; although the story traffics in the film-maker’s recognizable themes (mankind’s self-destructive impulses, the tribalism that prevents cooperation in the face of impending mutal doom), the execution gives the impression that any competent director could have been behind the camera.
The story follows a rogue military unit, briefly glimpsed in DIARY, whose search for a safe refuge leads them to an isolated island off the East Coast. Unfortunately, they stumble into the middle of a feud between rival patriarchs: one wants to clear the island of the living dead menace; the other wants to find a way to preserve the dearly departed, in the hope that someday someone will find a cure.
Romero makes a laudable attempt to add a few new ingredients to the mix, but that’s not quite enough to prevent the result from feeling watered down. With the rival families coming across like a modern version of the Earps and the Clantons (they even ride horses), SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD deliberately suggests a Western, and the tactic of inserting outsiders into this conflict is a good one, upsetting the balance of power and precipitating a crisis.
Unfortunately, these new elements do not always serve the subject matter well. Romero is revisiting themes from DAY OF THE DEAD (which focused on finding a way to feed the dead, so that they would not eat the living), but he is not really expanding upon the old ideas, just repeating them in a new context. The idea worked when the experimentors were scientists (who could offer theories about what they were doing), but the characters in SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD are just laymen with no expertise on the subject. Consequently, the opportunity to explore the theme is severely blunted. In fact, at times it feels labored.
For all this good intentions, Romero stoops to some weak plot devices, such as the old identical twin ploy, which is played so half-heartedly you wonder why he even bothered. Even worse, he gets lazy with his climactic twist, which [SPOILER ALERT] echoes the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), wherein the obnoxious Mr. Cooper (who is set up as the movie’s antagonist) was in the end proved right. This sort of irony is perhaps too delicious to resist revisiting, but its reprise here is poorly thought out. A dead equestrian (who has been mindlessly riding her horse for days if not weeks) is captured and put into a corral with the horse, and after about five minutes she decides to eat it. Why now? Why not during all that time she was riding it? At least DAY OF THE DEAD suggested that Dr. Logan was using behavior modification techniques to train his star pupil; here, it just happens. [END SPOILER]
As in DIARY OF THE DEAD, Romero replaces most of the old practical gore effects with computer-generated imagery (a decision motivated by budget concerns, not artistic ones). The results are not unduly horrible by low-budget standards, but they are immediately recognizable; at least the quicker ones go by too fast to dwell on the digital origins. In general, the result is that the horrific impact of SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD is less pronounced than that of Romero’s earlier efforts, although there are still a few good gruesome moments featuring old-fashioned prosthetics.
The cast – sometimes is a weakness in Romero’s films – is strong, particularly Stefano DiMatteo, who takes what could have been a one-note stereotype and makes him the most sympathetic of the lot. Alan Van Sprang carries off the lead role well enough, although one wishes that the script had more carefully charted his character’s progress from the ruthless thief scene in DIARY to the sympathetic comrade revealed here. (Romero has always tried to people his films with characters who are more than mere walking victims, even if their personalities were sometimes broadly defined.) The casual inclusion of a lesbian among the military unit (without the sniggering seen in most exploitation horror films) is a nice touch. q
More than George A. Romero’s previous sequels, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD simply suffers from the law of diminishing returns. Back in their glory days, the films benefitted from being spaced out over years if not decades, providing time for the cultural context to change and for Romero to recharge his batteries, coming back to the franchise with a maturing vision and improved expertise as a filmmaker. However, since 2005 he has made three more “of the Dead” films (LAND OF THE DEAD, DIARY OF THE DEAD, and now SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD), and it may just be too much to expect that any filmmaker has that much to say on such a narrow topic. Romero would like to do other things, and if film financiers are not comfortable handing him a musical comedy, they should at least give him an opportunity to explore other areas of the horror genre. Then, maybe sometime around 2019, he could come back and blow us away with “Return of the Dead.”
LAND OF THE DEAD (2005) concluded with a small paramilitary team hitting the road in an armored vehicle known as Dead Reckoning, in search of a safe refuge; the ending clearly suggested a sequel; however, in 2007 Romero made DIARY OF THE DEAD, which rebooted the franchise instead of following directly from its predecessor. SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD is presented as a direct sequel to DIARY (it is the first of Romero’s DEAD films to feature a returning character), yet it feels like a spiritual sequel to LAND, in that its rogue military unit takes possession of a heavily armored vehicle, then sets out on the road in search of a safe refuge. LAND also featured an isolated society broken down into warring factions, including an Irish spokesman for the oppressed – ideas and characters that are echoes in SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD.
In the U.S., SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD made its national premiere via Pay Per View on April 30. A limited theatrical release will follow on May 28.
SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (Copyright: 2009; VOD Release: April 30, 2010; Theatrical Release: May, 28, 2010). Written and directed by George A. Romero. Cast: Alan Van Sprang, Kenneth Welsh, Kathleen Munroe, Devon Bostick, Richard Fitzpatrick, Athena Karkanis, Stefano DiMatteo, Joris Jarsky, Eric Woolfe, Julian Richings, Wayne Robson, Joshua Peace, Hardee T. Lineham.