Survival of the Dead

a film by George A. Romero

It was nearly 42 years ago today (the actual anniversary comes October 1st) that a 28-year-old New York City born, Pittsburgh PA residing filmmaker would shoot and direct his first film in the barren landscape just outside his beloved steel city. The film was called Night of the Living Dead and the filmmaker, George A. Romero. This little black-and-white low budget (right around $100,000) horror movie about the dead rising and craving human flesh, with its inherent social, racial and political commentary, along with the (at least in 1968) excessive amounts of gratuitous blood and gore, would not only become a huge hit (raking in more than 300 times as much as the movie initially cost!) and garner an ever-growing cult following, but would utterly redefine (or would that be define?) the very genre.

Romero would follow this up with a series of (almost) equally low budget socio-political horror films (The Crazies and Martin being the stand outs) before, in 1978, turning back to his undead roots and creating Dawn of the Dead, this time set in a shopping mall at the very dawn of the ultra consumerism of the 1980's - a better zombie metaphor has never been uttered. After the mostly panned (though somewhat underrated) Day of the Dead, and a short and mostly unprofitable Hollywood run of movies - not to mention the disastrous studio remake of Night of the Living Dead (this time the Romero-scripted remake would be directed by the make-up maestro Tom Savini) - Romero seemed to have run out of ideas and would work only sporadically over the next decade or so.

This being the case, the director decided again to go back to his roots and, two decades after Day of the Dead, made the studio-subsidized Land of the Dead (this time with actual name actors such as Dennis Hopper and the rabid and luscious horror princess herself, Asia Argento). It would be the best film Romero has made since the aforementioned Dawn of the Dead. He would (somewhat) quickly follow this up with a sort of re-start of the genre with Diary of the Dead, wherein a new generation of zombie survivalists would use modern technology (most of the film is shot as if through a hand-held camera by one of the hapless protags, a la Cloverfield) to make their way through the oncoming zombie apocalypse. A fair to middling film, Diary was perhaps not as good as it should have been, but then was not nearly as bad as it could have been (nor as bad as many critics panned it to be). This of course brings us (finally) to the sixth film in Romero's long gestating undead series, Survival of the Dead.

The mere fact that my inductory ramblings took three paragraphs and over 450 words, before ever even mentioning the film actually in review here, should tell the reader something of how little I actually have to say about the film in question. Easily the least of the six ...of the Dead films (though by no means the mess it could have been in different hands), Survival tells the story of a band of rogue National Guardsmen (briefly seen as villains in Diary) who hook up with one half of an Irish-angled Hatfield & McCoy feud on a place called Plum Island (off the coast of Delaware - Romero venturing farther and farther from his beloved Western PA). As one clan tries to keep their dead "alive" until they can find a cure they pray will someday exist, the other marches along like a backwoods death squad - albeit an Irish-brogued backwoods death squad. Into this family feud drop our intrepid camo-clad anti-heroes - and of course, all Hell breaks loose (as if a world populated with the walking dead is not already a broken open Hell!).

Full of (somewhat) lame attempts at usurping the tropes and trends of other genres (including a subplot worthy of the throw away pile of a Budd Boetticher western) and with a story that really goes nowhere - and not so fast - Survival is at best, a bit of an unfortunate bore. A sometimes enjoyable bore (if such a beast exists) but a bore nonetheless. Granted there are moments in Survival that are as fun as the genre should be. Its near saving grace!? A sequence involving a flare gun, a cigarette, a flaming zombie head and a drop kick off the side of a boat is among the most fun of these. This may also very well be the first time I ever found a zombie to be attractive (one of the Irish clan's daughters, chained to her horse until that damned cure is found is indeed smokin' hot, but not in the same way as our aforementioned flaming head buddy). None of this is enough though to make the otherwise tired movie (and perhaps genre) wake up and kick ass the way Romero's earlier films did (which must include the not-so-early Land of the Dead) nor the way Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake or the 28 Days and Weeks Later films have done.

In the end, which is punctuated by an image that takes the saying "I am so hungry I could eat a horse" to a whole other (and literal) level, Romero's latest (but not his greatest) ends up being merely a middle-of-the-(zombie infested)-road footnote in the genre that the director (for the most part) invented. [06/26/10]