[I know that I reviewed SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD back in 2010 (my review), but this is one that I thought could use a re-visit, and Deggsy just happened to watch it recently. I love synchronicity!! We both come to the same conclusions but take different roads getting there. Thanks Deggsy!! – AHS] George Romero. We love the guy. And why not? He’s the father of the modern zombie movie, after all! His original trilogy is held by us in the same esteem as the original STAR WARS trilogy, only ours has less merchandising and more heart. He set the standards. But it wouldn’t be fair, on us or on him, to blindly accept everything he offers without objectivity. LAND OF THE DEAD, a sort of bridge film between his first and second trilogies, had a big budget, but suffered from studio interference and a skewed storyline. As a result of the relative commercial failure, he scaled down the budget and scope for his next offering, DIARY OF THE DEAD (see Anything Horror Scott’s review here). He sacrificed scope for a stronger subtext, about media manipulation and the YouTube Society. Yes, there was a little too much CGI, but still, it felt a more personal film from George than we had received with LAND. I was initially displeased with DIARY, but subsequent viewings have raised my opinion of it. Could the next film, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, also hold up?
This is perhaps the most direct sequel Romero has made, in that a character from a previous movie, not just an actor, appears in a subsequent one. Here we are reunited with Crockett (Alan van Sprang, IMMORTALS, the TV series KING), a renegade soldier whose comrades in arms stick together even when the rest of the National Guard is falling apart, along with society (the movies of Romero’s second trilogy have so far taken place in the first few days and weeks after the dead started to walk, so in theory somewhere along the same timeline as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, though it’s best not to think about it too much.
Crockett is a weary but still rugged survivalist, though refreshingly and realistically he still maintains some standards of decency (he shows disgust at some rednecks who have cut off the heads of some captured zombies – who were all black, which I’m sure wasn’t accidental – and stuck them, still animated, onto poles rather than just killing them. His views are shared by his friends, notably the lesbian Tomboy (Athena Karkanis, who played Agent Perez in the SAW movies), whom we first see masturbating in her jeep while outside at night during a zombie uprising (I have no problem with a woman strumming the kitty guitar, but I like to think there are better times for that), as well as her Latino friend Francisco (Stefani Dimatteo, CHRONCILES OF RIDDICK), and nice goofball Kenny (Eric Woolfe, CERTAIN PREY).
While dealing with the aforementioned rednecks, Crockett rescues the smartass Boy (Devon Bostick, DIARY OF A WIMPY KID, and yes, his character is listed as Boy, which shows you how much thought Romero put into the character), who shows them an online invitation from Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Walsh, THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE) to come seek refuge from the dead on nearby Plum Island. What the Richard Harris lookalike O’Flynn doesn’t tell, however, is the long-standing feud on the island between his clan and the other prominent family, the Muldoons, led by Seamus (the Jon Voight lookalike Richard Fitzpatrick, GOOD WILL HUNTING, 16 BLOCKS). When the dead started rising, the O’Flynns believed in shooting them in the head and finishing them off, but the Muldoons believe some could be trained not to eat human flesh and be domesticated (gee, where have we heard that one before?). The Muldoons forced O’Flynn and his elderly friends off the island, but O’Flynn’s horse-loving daughter Jane (Kathleen Munroe, from the TV series CALL ME FITZ) remains, wanting to stay above the family feud, and O’Flynn has been arranging for refugees to get to the island – after taking them for all their possessions, of course.
Crockett and his men arrive at O’Flynn’s boathouse, and prove more formidable than the average civilian, and in the subsequent firefight and ensuing chaos the opposing parties, or at least those who remain, manage to make it to a ferry before being overrun by zombies – though not before Francisco becomes the Designated Death By Slow Zombie Infection Casualty when he has to bite off a revenant’s finger that gets poked into his mouth. Crockett doesn’t much like O’Flynn, but on reaching the island realises that for all his faults, he’s at least reasonable compared with the more ruthless Muldoon. Maybe… What do I like about SURVIVAL? Principally, the characters and the gore, both of them an improvement over DIARY. In place of the anonymous, unlikeable teens/twenty-somethings of the previous movie (though some are unlikeable in their own ways) we get a wider mixture of folk more approaching “ordinary” people. But still, most remain threadbare in terms of depth and development, apart from the friendship between Crockett and Kenny, and between Tomboy and Francisco. And the gore, though riddled in places with CGI, remains mostly fresh and real and bloody and gooey, particularly at the end, when we get plenty of “money shots”.
But it does have problems. The islanders’ Oirish accents are inconsistent among a supposed isolated group of the people (yes, you can tell the difference between them if you know) and it seems like they were tagged on as an obvious reflection on the Troubles in Northern Ireland). And the argument between those who would cull the dead and those who would domesticate them was done better in DAY IN THE DEAD. Both sides have some measure of validity but neither proves willing to concede, and it feels more like the heads of the respective clans just took opposite sides out of sheer habit. Coupled with this is a loss of, I suppose I’d call it The Horror of Upheaval. DAWN OF THE DEAD (both the original and the remake) illustrated perfectly the utter shitstorm society would rapidly undergo if the dead began to rise and attack the living. Everythingwould collapse quicker than Courtney Love in a meth lab. But the movies of Romero’s Second Trilogy to date have been very lightweight in terms of the Horror of Upheaval: in the following weeks, there’s still power to streetlights (and chargers for the laptops and phones we see), the Internet, talk show hosts making jokes about the Deadheads, and thoughts that money still means something.
And then there’s people more willing to make snappy one-liners when dealing with the dead, as well as the “creative deaths” Romero started with DIARY, and moments of actual slapstick (I know we got a pie fight in the original DAWN, but here we get a dynamite explosion blowing away a wall and leaving people standing with blackened faces behind it; all it was missing was stars and tweeting birds flying around their heads) that made me feel like I was watching an old movie.
Speaking of which, Romero introduces a subplot that must be as old as the silent movie era: The Identical Twin. It’s a “twist” that is as contrived as a child hiding a stolen cookie behind his back, and serves less useful purpose than a Kardashian.
The movie seems to fall apart at the climax, with people doing things more because it’s time to wrap things up than for any logical reason But still, the notion of a hatred so ingrained it continues beyond death is a powerful one, and Romero ends the film with a powerful image, which made me think of how much better this could have been.
The movie is available everywhere. The trailer is here. And what will George bring us next? Two more films are promised. Fingers crossed they’re improvements.
Director: George Romero (& writer)
Plot: 3 out of 5 stars
Gore: 8 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 4 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien