Alright!! My first night at TFW was a fucking blast. We were at the Studio Movie Grill in Lewisville to see Romero’s Survival of the Dead and Tim Sullivan’s North American premier of 2001 Maniacs: Field of Screams. The cast, crew, and director were present for 2001 Maniacs, but unfortunately there wasn’t the same fanfare for Survival. Here’s the review for Survival and I’ll hit the 2001 Maniacs a little later.
Let me first start by releasing a huge sigh of relief (I’m wiping the virtual sweat from my brow). Survival is Romero’s best zombie work since 1985’s Day of the Dead. For various reasons I just wasn’t a fan of 2005’s Land of the Dead or 2007’s Diary of the Dead. At all. Although flawed Survival recaptures a little of the good old “Romero Magic” and zombie fun.
Survivalbegins six days after the dead started walking. We join two warring clans on Plum Island, located off the coast of Delaware. The O’Flynn clan, headed by patriarch Patrick (Kenneth Welsh), wants to scour the island by killing both all the zombies and anyone who’s been bitten. The other clan is the Muldoon’s, headed by patriarch Seamus (Richard Fitzpatrick), and he wants to wrangle the dead up and “protect” them. Seamus feels it necessary to keep the clan together, and, as he argues, you never know when a cure will be found. These two clans have been warring for centuries. But Seamus gets the upper hand on Patrick and exiles him from the island. Yes, its the old Hatfields vs. McCoys. I was a little worried about how this would play out in Survival but Romero handled to pretty well overall.
One problem I did have was that Romero should have made Seamus and Patrick a little more “even.” There was never any doubt that Seamus was being set up as the “bad guy.” And even though Patrick was an old son-of-a-bitch there was no doubt he was the “good guy.” But both Patrick’s and Seamus’ points of view were valid. Besides hoping for a cure, Seamus was trying to find an alternate food source for the zombies (echoes of Day of the Dead??) which really isn’t that bad of an idea. It could have added a lot more tension and conflict for the audience if Romero presented both their points of view as being valid, and letting the story unfold from there. It would have been fun to split the audience down the middle: “I agree with Seamus.” “Are you fucking crazy, Patrick was the right one.” As it is you automatically side with Patrick because Seamus is portrayed as bat-s**t crazy.
Our other group, that eventually runs into Patrick and brings him back to the island, is made up of some ex-soldiers who go AWOL and band together. The soldiers run into a 20-something kid (Devon Bostick) who joins them. The kid is wasted in his role: He’s pretty competent with a gun and has a tough-as-nails attitude. I would have liked to have seen more about him. He plays prominently in the first half of the movie then seems to be forgotten in the second half. Maybe he was introduced now and will be featured in a future Romero project? Anyway, the ex-soldiers are Nicotine (Alan Van Sprang), the leader; Tomboy (Athena Karkanis); Francisco (Stefano Di Matteo); and Chuck (Joris Jarsky). They end up taking Patrick back to the island, and as soon as they get there the feud picks up right were it left off.
The plot here is definitely stronger than Land and Diary and it got me more involved than those other two films did. The zombie violence is also better done (Greg Nicotero supervised the f/x) than his last two outings. The majority of the f/x are practical f/x and are great. But for some reason there were a few CGI f/x and they stuck out like sore thumbs. Poor choice in using CGI; the only thing it did was pull me out of the moment. There’s a scene where the ex-soldiers run into some rednecks in the woods. The rednecks cut the heads off of a group of zombies (keeping their brains in tact) and plunk them on stakes. Great idea; we get about a dozen decapitated zombie heads stuck on sticks with their eyes and mouths moving!! The problem; it was done using CGI and what should have been creepy and scary ended up just being funny and ridiculous.
We did get a few new creative kills. One zombie’s head bursts after Francisco shoves the nozzle of a fire extinguisher into its mouth and fills him up (reminds me of the “tire sealant” kill in Laid to Rest). And another has a flare shot into it’s chest which results in the zombie’s head bursting into flames (I didn’t know that could happen!!). Nice, creative kills tainted only by the use of some CGI.
Romero was also playing with the idea here that you don’t need to get bitten by a zombie to turn into one. All you need to do is die. This is an idea that is also used in Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic. But we never really dive into this point in any detail. And then there’s the treatment of the zombies themselves. We all know since 1985’s Day of the Dead and Romero’s introduction of Bub that Romero has been flirting with the idea of “evolving” the zombie. He tried to examine this in 2005 with the Zombie Big Daddy; the results were disastrous!! I absolutely hated Big Daddy and the entire Land of the Dead project!! And once again we get a few pretty stupid zombie elements. The worst is the “zombie girl on horseback”; don’t ask … trust me its really gay. I like and can appreciate that Romero is trying to focus more on the zombies, but there has to be a better way of doing it than by trying to give them intelligence. I’m just not into that.
Overall Survivor of the Dead is a vast improvement over his last two zombie films. The plot is more interesting and we get good performances by everyone involved (I really like Nicotine’s character and what Sprang did with it). This is far from a perfect movie but is definitely a step in the right direction as far as getting his zombie flicks back on track. I recommend this one for a rental.
Director: George Romero (and writer)
Plot: 3 out of 5 stars
Gore: 6 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 3 out of 5 brains.
Reviewed by Scott Shoyer from the Texas Frightmare Weekend 2010