George A. Romero | 90 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & Canada / English | 18 / R
Once, zombie auteur George A. Romero commented that he’d hoped to make one zombie film a decade — witness Night of the Living Dead in 1968, Dawn of the Dead in 1978, and Day of the Dead in 1985. So why, then, did he churn out three new zombie flicks in four years, between Land of the Dead in 2005 and Survival in 2009? On the US Blu-ray, he explains.
Yep. As Romero tells the story, after Land of the Dead he had an idea for a film about ‘citizen journalism’. He wanted to make it quickly, before someone else had the same idea (sadly, several such films were already well into development, but hey, he didn’t know that), so how better to make a film quickly and cheaply than by turning to what he knew — zombies. The result, Diary of the Dead, was made so cheaply that, despite a limited release, it turned a healthy profit. Cue pressure on Romero to turn out another to capitalise on this success. So he did. And that probably explains why this entry — the sixth in his thematically-connected series of zombie films — was so poorly received and seems to be almost universally regarded as the weakest instalment.
As is so often the case, I disagree. But we’ll come to that.
A defining feature of Romero’s zombie series is that there are, as he argues, no sequels. The zombie-infested world of the films develops, but no characters return — each film is standalone; you could argue each concerns a different zombie apocalypse, if you really wanted. Survival bucks that trend by being the first direct sequel. If you’ve seen Diary, you’ll remember the (brief) scene where the military turn up and rob our heroes. Bastards. Well, that little gang of military types are back — and now they’re the heroes. Survival even takes the time to flashback to Diary, noting the release of the film-within-a-film led to the military gang’s leader, Sarge (Alan van Sprang), being recognised. It’s not a plot/character thread Romero chooses to develop further — there’s no about-turn in his values, or a desire to hide from said recognition — which is a shame, actually, because the plot supports such a move.
The story proper begins on the island of Plum, somewhere off the coast of America, which has been populated for centuries by two opposed Irish clans, the O’Flynns and the Muldoons. In the days following the outbreak, the O’Flynns set about killing the undead; the Muldoons, however, think they should be kept locked up, in case a cure is developed. This leads to the dominant Muldoons, led by Seamus (Richard Fitzpatrick) kicking some of the O’Flynns off the island, including patriarch Patrick (Kenneth Welsh). That’s how, months later, Patrick meets up with our military gang and lures them back to Plum, where things have changed…
The obvious problem here is one of heroes — who do we support? There’s the military guys, who we dislike from Diary; there’s Patrick O’Flynn, who we first meet when his posse murders a woman so they can get to her zombified children and dispatch them too; and there’s the Muldoons, who don’t factor in again for a while, but when they do… well, they’re not a nice bunch, really. And yet Romero doesn’t construct a whole film from unlikeable characters — well, some viewers would (and have) assert he does, but I tend to think he redeems the military somewhat. We meet up with them as they come across a gang of men in the woods, who have seemingly been hunting the undead for fun. In the latest twist on the zombie-killing format met with human cruelty, they’ve been beheading them and shoving those heads on sticks — and, as we know, unless the brain is destroyed the zombie ‘lives’. A confrontation leads to the nasty hunters being killed, and Sarge kindly ending the existence of the row of zombie heads. Doesn’t sound cheery, put like that, but the military are Doing The Right Thing.
It’s also here that they meet a character known only as Boy (Devon Bostick), who had been co-opted into the gang of hunters. Turns out he’s handy with a weapon himself, and resourceful and clever. What an intriguing mystery. But don’t get too caught up — Romero never again alludes to where such skills materialised from. In fact, he so doesn’t return to the Boy’s abilities that I wonder if we weren’t even really meant to notice. Which doesn’t make sense. Is he left over to be revisited in a third in this new zombie series? Romero doesn’t seem to be in any rush to produce one… but then, Survival was an almighty flop (it even went straight to DVD here), so I guess we’ll never know.
As discussed, Romero already turned this one out quickly, motivated more by a desirous studio than a flash of inspiration (the fact its production company is called “Blank of the Dead” is telling), and the sacrifice for such speed seems to come in the thematic department: while all of Romero’s previous zombie films have a clear (some would say too clear) socio-political underscore, you could watch Survival and not even imagine one was there. I almost did. Instead, its thesis is a relatively slight offering about the futility of long-standing feuds that no one can remember the start of, and how they ruin everyone’s lives. It’s a valid point, and, in a world where the likes of the Israel-Palestine conflict rumble on, an ever-pertinent one. It feels underdeveloped, though; like Romero didn’t have time to make it work properly, and so just threw some extra elements in there to give the plot some drive. How do the military unit, our de facto heroes, actually relate to anything?
You know, I had a whole thing to go into there, and then the obvious hit me: they represent foreign (usually American) military interference. They wade in and cause a ruckus. Which side are they on? The one they encountered first, not the one that objectively has the best argument — also a definition of US foreign policy, is it not. And I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the islanders are Irish; and not just Irish in the way so many Americans claim to be “Irish” or “Italian” or whatever just because 200 years ago they had some relatives who emigrated, but properly, thickly-accented Irish. Which, yes, is kinda odd on an island off the coast of America, but hey, why not.
Another thing Romero has almost always done is push his treatment of zombies forward. Diary was the black sheep in this regard — by going back to the start, the zombies regressed to shambling flesh-eaters; and, actually, they’re barely a part of that film, only turning up now and then to motivate an action sequence. Here, Romero is almost back on track: the zombies are a more major part of the movie, thanks to the Muldoons keeping so many of them alive, and Romero once again finds a new direction to push their development in. Some, I think, would find it preferable and more worthy of exploration than the ‘intelligent’ zombies of Day and Land. Indeed, even more so than the Boy, it’s a shame Romero hasn’t moved on to a seventh film to explore the potential of his closing-moments revelation here.
For those more concerned with zombie-killin’ action, Romero and his effects team continue to come up with new ways of ridding the world of the undead. There’s the return of flesh-ripping practical effects in an attempt to satiate the hardcore, but there’s still CGI, and inevitably they seem to have focussed on that instead. As I discussed in my Diary review, I have no problem with CG blood splatter or what have you, and it’s as palatable here as it was there. There’s also a welcome return for his brand of humour, which went somewhat AWOL in the last couple of films. Those who criticise the film for being too comedic have, in my view, become too obsessed with modern cinema’s uber-serious tone. Lighten up folks, it’s a horror/sci-fi/fantasy movie.
I’ve written an average of 1,531 words about each of Romero’s previous ‘Dead’ movies, and even then not discussed everything I feel is worth saying about them. I thought Survival would merit a lot less because, despite my above analysis, it does feel more lightweight than its predecessors. In the end, it’s in the same ballpark (1,516 to be precise, and I still haven’t said everything worth saying), because a) I don’t think being lightweight is wholly a bad thing, and b) there’s more to it than meets the eye. There are, unquestionably, better zombie movies written and directed by George A. Romero, but I think here he’s produced one of his most watchable; one that can be as entertaining as the others, is still at times as innovative, and does even support a deeper reading, if you’re prepared to look for it. The film not only shows us that the dead can survive, but that so should Romero’s reputation.
Part of Week of the Living Dead for Halloween 2013.