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Survival of the Dead

Directed by George Romero
Blank of the Dead Productions, 2010

(Major spoilers in here. Alert!)

Since George Romero’s latest film Survival of the Dead is finally arriving in theaters this month, I’ve had many people ask me what I thought of it. After all, I did spend 3 years completely immersed in all things Romero while I wrote my thesis on his zombie films – if anybody’s going to have an opinion on S. of the D., it’s going to be me.

My answer? I’ve seen the film, and it’s left me feeling pretty deeply ambivalent.

In his own way, Romero is a legend of our time. With Night of the Living Dead in 1968, he established himself as the go-to zombie director – in the popular mind, he invented the sub-genre. His films have always carried heavy-handed political messages and done so with general competency. While Romero is not a sophisticated director, he is fantastic at creating claustrophobic scenarios that bring out the worst in his characters. He’s also an artist when it comes to inventing entertaining and exciting ways to see zombies get killed. Helicopter blades, fire, decapitation by machine gun, Romero has shot them all and left us wanting more (well, some of us, anyway – those of us who ever wanted any wanted more). That achievement is why I’m struggling so much to write a glowing review of Survival of the Dead. I can’t; not completely. All his old familiar strengths are on display in this movie, but hoo boy, so are all his weaknesses.

The film is loosely based on the William Wyler western Big Country, which is a good start; I’ve often thought there should be more zombie westerns. The white hats versus dark hats motif naturally lends itself to battles of living versus undead, so I don’t blame Romero for his choice of setting. My main problem with Survival of the Dead was with Romero’s, you’ll pardon the expression, execution of his characters.

Survival focuses on a small group of soldiers, a still-functioning unit in this a post-zombie world. The outbreak started years before, and this militia unit is trying not only to survive but to preserve their ranks. They are lead by Sarge “Nicotine” Crocket, who happens to be the first character that Romero has ever carried over from one film to another. We first encountered Crocket in Diary of the Dead as the leader of a band of soldiers who boards a college student’s RV and takes all of their essential supplies. Through a short montage sequence, Romero shows us that while we had previously seen Crocket and his men as the enemy, they were actually just following orders and we should really see them now as sympathetic characters. Perhaps I had an overly emotional response to seeing Crocket and remembering his villainous turn in Diary, but I just didn’t buy the character’s new spin in Survival – I never completely trusted him, as I was clearly intended to this time around.

Meanwhile, on an island off the coast of Delaware, the zombie plague has further divided a set of feuding families. The O’Flynns and the Muldoons, each with their predictably stereotypical patriarch, have been arguing about everything since they both came to the island, and both have very different opinions on how zombies should be dealt with. The O’Flynns believe that anyone who’s become a zombie should be shot in the head instantly out of respect for the life they led and as a courtesy to their loved ones. The Muldoons believe that these zombies should be kept around (on short strong chains) because they are still family, and Seamus Muldoon is convinced that they will find a way to make these zombies right again.

Anyone who has seen any of Romero’s zombie films knows that the Muldoons are wrong, wrong, wrong. Ever since Peter shot the newly zombified Roger in Dawn of the Dead, we’ve been shown that killing zombies is the only respectful thing to do when your loved one starts to mash their jaws and look for human flesh. This is a well-established axiom, as much a part of the genre as crosses for vampires or fire (bad!) for the Frankenstein monster. And Romero hasn’t just followed this rule – he invented it! So you can imagine how upsetting it is to watch Romero vindicate the Muldoon’s crazy pro-unlife approach in Survival of the Dead. By the end of Survival, Romero has a bunch of zombies chowing down on a horse, ignoring the few humans that are left after the inevitable shootout between the O’Flynns and the Muldoons. It’s as if Jaws author Peter Benchley ended up becoming a passionate shark-conservation advocate (what’s that you say? He actually did? Oh pipe down! I’m heartbroken here!).

Romero not only completely changes the zombie’s dieting guidelines in Survival he also shows them doing some other very unzombielike activities, beside the aforementioned ignoring humans. In this film zombies ride horses, tend gardens and deliver mail. They aren’t doing any of these activities especially well, in fact most of these behaviors resemble animatronic Disneyland displays (or lifelong retail employees), but they do them within sight of humans. All of the zombies I know drop whatever they’re doing to go after their next fleshy meal. Zombies usually sense humans and then stagger off in the human’s direction, stopping at nothing to get to that tasty meat. So why is Romero giving us zombies more interested in carrying out their pre-programmed occupations than getting their next meal?

My gut reaction is to call Romero on his inconsistencies within the zombie decrees and to banish him like I have banished other directors who don’t play by the rules. Zombies eat humans, by definition, so as unthinkable as it is, Romero is clearly off base, right? But how do you impose these zombie regulations on the man who created them? If Hitchcock had made a musical comedy … if Woody Allen adapted a Tom Clancy novel … if George Romero gave us brain-vegan zombies … ugh. At the end of the day I will call a truce let Romero break his own codes, but only out of respect for the man. What I won’t call truce on, however, is the poorly executed and inappropriately comical parts of the film.

The biggest of these problems is that the characters are caricatures of stereotypes. Both Seamus Muldoon and Patrick O’Flynn are shown as one dimensional Irishmen who are stubborn and thick headed. We have no interest in getting to know them, and why should we? They’re not only cartoons, they’re bad cartoons. Add in unfortunate accents and both of these men come across as overgrown insensitive leprechauns. Crocket is portrayed as a military man who will do anything to protect his soldiers, but that’s it (any conflict he might have felt about his actions in Diary of the Dead – he basically doomed those poor college kids – has been smoothed into invisibility here). Had Romero put more into making Crocket, or any of the soldiers for that matter, more complete characters, I might have taken a greater interest in whether or not they live. Generating that interest in viewers is the first responsibility of zombie-movie directors. Romero knows this. He’s the guy who taught it to everybody else in the horror industry.

And while I was disappointed in the characterizations and these brie-and-yogurt-snacking undead, Romero certainly outdoes himself when it comes to the second responsibility of zombie-movie directors: creative kills of both zombies and humans. One zombie has the crest of his skull cut off and it spins like a top. Another has his head exploded with a fire extinguisher. And to kill humans we have grenades, guns, and zombie bites aplenty to keep me and my fellow gore enthusiasts amused throughout most of the film. Even when the zombies eat that horse you can delight in the repulsive ingestion noises and geysers of blood.

Two amazing sequences demonstrate that Romero can still turn in truly gut-wrenching zombie action movie. The first is when the soldiers reach the docks where they hope to take a boat over to the zombie (and Irish) infested island. The soldiers are in an armored car, Patrick O’Flynn is in a bait shack (making him and his men literal zombie bait), the ferry is out in the bay and the zombies are everywhere. Quite the recipe for a nail biting scene. As O’Flynn is arguing with both his men and the soldiers, the zombies are closing in on both groups. One of the soldiers, the daredevil of the group, decides to swim out to the ferry so that they can get the armored truck on to it and get away from O’Flynn. As the soldier is swimming to the ferry he notices that there are arms reaching up toward him from the bottom of the bay. He is swimming just inches above the fingertips of a sea of submerged zombies; they’re all waterlogged and, needless to say, hungry. The image of those arms in the water and the fear in the soldier’s face all make for premium suspenseful viewing.

After the armored car boards the ferry, the soldiers begin the task of clearing the ferry of zombies. These soldiers are clearly sick of zombies being everywhere they go, and sick of zombies being so dumb and easy to kill – the monsters of Romero’s earliest films are here often portrayed as nuisances. There’s a funny bit that occurs when the soldiers encounter a zombie who still retains the memory of how to drive a car: as the car zooms haphazardly to and fro, the soldiers have to worry about getting run over in addition to being chomped … the speed and relentlessness of the sequence actually push it past humor and make it novel and gripping (what about all the zombies visible in other cars? Are they all suddenly going to start their engines?) This scene and the others I’ve mentioned go a long way toward showing that Romero is still a capable director in this, his sixth zombie movie.

It just pains me a little to see Romero so far off base in the inaccurate (oh, you know what I mean) portrayal of his zombies and his uninteresting portrayal of humans. Survival of the Dead is a fun film to watch, if only for the rivers of blood and the legions of undead – especially if you stop reminding yourself of how much more Romero could do with this kind of material. I think if a zombie purist like me can see past Romero’s missteps here, then any casual zombie fan should be able to delight in Romero’s latest contribution to the genre he started.

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Deirdre Crimmins lives in Boston, wrote her Master’s thesis on George Romero, and works too much.