“Survival isn’t just for the living.” So says the tagline for Survival of the Dead, the most recent addition to George Romero’s zombie oeuvre. It’s a great premise.
Romero effectively created the zombie genre with Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978). But it was with 1985’s Day of the Dead that he introduced the unique notion that the living dead could rise above their mindless craving for human flesh and could relearn human behaviour. Twenty years later, when he finally made a fourth Dead movie – 2005’s Land of the Dead – he expounded further on that idea, going so far as to make his signature black hero a zombie instead of a living human. More after the jump:
I was disappointed that Romero dropped this interesting concept when he rebooted his own series with 2008’s unfortunate Diary of the Dead. So when I learned that Survival of the Dead focused on people’s attempts to “rehabilitate” zombies I hoped that the movie would mark a true return to form for the legendary filmmaker. Oh, how wrong I was.
As I watched this movie, I realized – to my great dismay – that not only will Survival of the Dead have trouble finding an audience, but it doesn’t even deserve one. My in-depth review is after the jump.
The really frustrating thing about Survival of the Dead is that its core ideas are really interesting and if they had been handled correctly they could have been crafted into a great movie. The basic premise of the story is that on a small island in the Atlantic Ocean two rival families have very different ideas about how to deal with the zombie problem. Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Walsh) and family believe that the dead should be destroyed permanently, while Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) and clan want to keep their dead kin around, hoping that someday someone will find a cure. This is a great setup for conflict, since it is easy to see why each family might think that its own stance was correct and why the other’s was abhorrent. Another great twist is that one of the protagonists is Survival appeared briefly in Diary of the Dead as an antagonistic character. This is a wonderful conceit, which says a lot about the nature of storytelling: the designations of “hero” and “villain” depend more on the audience’s frame of reference than on the actual actions of the character.
But Romero, who has always had interesting ideas, seems to have completely lost the ability to translate those ideas into a coherent story. There is no real drama in the family rivalry; it’s just two old men bickering about who’s right and who’s wrong. And instead of allowing Muldoon to present logical arguments for why he wants to keep the dead living, we are instead shown that the crazy Muldoon family has always had a death fetish, which is so much less interesting than a honest policy dispute would have been. And as for turning an antagonist into a protagonist, well that trick simply does not work when all of the characters are completely annoying. Questions of heroism and frame of reference become moot when you just want all of the characters to shut up and die.
Dialogue and character development have never been Romero’s strong suit, but at least in Land of the Dead he had solid actors (Dennis Hopper, Simon Baker, John Leguizamo) who were able to fill out their characters and give them presence. Survival of the Dead has no such saving grace; not a single actor is able to deliver his lines without sounding absurd.
SPOILER WARNING (I guess)
I can forgive stilted dialogue if the story is interesting, and Romero has shown in the past that he can create engaging storylines, but Survival’s plot is completely ludicrous – how is it that the internet works if no one is around to run the power plants which are needed to run the servers? – and filled with irrelevant plot threads – such as a zombie’s “surprise” twin sister.
I could pick apart the entire plot, but I think it’s enough to point out that the dramatic climax of the movie is two warring factions sitting around waiting to see if a zombie will bite a horse. The idea being that there is hope for the zombies to coexist with humans if they can learn to eat something other than people. But it had already been shown that the dead continue to do the things they did in life – like delivering mail, chopping wood and riding horses(!) – so wouldn’t it make more sense to try to feed the zombies normal food? They just might remember eating corn dogs and giblets and give them a taste, but none of them are going to have memories of eating living horses. And when the zombies finally do start to eat the horse, it may prove that Muldoon was right, but it goes against everything that has been established in Romero’s previous zombies movies. Zombies simply do not eat animals; they always ignore them and go after humans. Why all of a sudden would they start to eat a horse when there is an abundant supply of human flesh all around? They were not trained to do it and it is definitely not in their nature.
Romero did not just fail as a screenwriter here, though; he’s not even a good director anymore. The way he directs Survival, it’s as if all of his characters are deaf and have no peripheral vision. Over and over again, zombies and other bad guys appear out of nowhere from one shot to the next, even when characters are standing out in the open. It’s not scary; it’s stupid.
Romero has always enjoyed coming up with interesting, new ways to “kill” zombies on screen and this entire movie seems like it was thrown together to let him show off his most recent batch of ideas (Shoot off a fire extinguisher in one’s mouth! Poke one in the head with a carving fork!! Hand one a stick of TNT!!!)
Survival of the Dead was released on DVD in the UK last month. It debuts in the US on April 30th on Video on Demand. Then it will open theatrically on May 28th, but I have no idea who will pay to see it at the cinema. There will be no positive buzz around this movie and most genre fans will just watch it at home.
Romero really was a master of his craft once, but if you look back over his six zombie movies, it is clear that each one is a weaker movie than the ones that came before. His craft, his box office and his fan base are all dwindling. If the 70-year-old director ever makes another Dead movie, it may never see a theatrical release at all.