APRIL 21, 2010
I’d like to thank my friends who have caught Survival Of The Dead via festival screenings and such and had thus sunk my expectations into the gutter, because it allowed me to more or less enjoy the movie. Sadly, I must admit that this is indeed the weakest of the six Romero zombie films (hell, if not for Miner’s Day of the Dead I could include the remakes and the sentiment would remain true), but it’s important to note that a lackluster Romero zombie movie is still better than most other zombie movies.
Let’s start with the good: the characters of Sarge (Alan Van Sprang, reprising his brief role from Diary of the Dead - this is the strongest tie any of them have had so far) and O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh) are his best heroes since Peter and Roger from Dawn of the Dead. Sarge is a standard anti-hero badass, but Sprang gives him a life that might not even have been present on the page, and his scenes with the kid (Devon Bostick) are the most, well, I’d stop short of saying HEARTFELT (but along those lines at least) in the movie. And Welsh is a complete delight, as the patriarch of the O’Flynn family who believes that the zombies (called “dead heads” here) should be put down instantly, regardless of personal ties. His Irish accent can be a bit grating (mainly because the film is not set in Ireland, but in Delaware), but he steals every scene he’s in, and while Sarge may have more screen time, it really becomes O’Flynn’s movie.
And I really liked the simple, laid-back premise. Basically, the O’Flynns and another family, the Muldoons, have been engaged in a Hatfield/McCoy esque feud for years, and each side is trying to take complete control of the island from the others. The zombie presence just makes things worse, and, as with all of Romero’s films, eventually the humans have to worry about fellow humans more than they do the zombies. But for a change, it’s not black and white as to who the bad guys are, like the bikers in Dawn or the evil Dennis Hopper people in Land. No, while we are technically “sided” with the O’Flynns, we eventually learn that the Muldoon family is trying to train the zombies to eat something besides humans, so that they can co-exist. The political metaphors aren’t as on the nose as in Land, but they’re there, and I like that George has gone back to being a bit more subtle on such matters, even if this time he doesn’t seem to be choosing a side.
Where it DOES disappoint, however, is - incredibly - the zombie action. It’s much more limited than in the other films; Day might have had less but it was more exciting and interesting when it was there. Here, we basically get a few isolated and incredibly brief attacks, including the finale, which seems to only have about 20 zombies. There’s a moment early on where we see them standing in the water, and while it may have been a bit too much like the end of the 2nd act in Land with all of them rising out of the water, I would have liked to have seen some sort of actual swarm. Granted they are on an island and thus the number of possible zombies (existing and turned-on-film) is limited, but the finale is still pretty weak, and includes a few character deaths that don’t seem earned, but more there for the hell of it. And the closing shot of the film, while metaphorically significant, just looks like a cartoon.
Worse, we’ve apparently reached the point where Greg Nicotero will still turn in his obligatory cameo but not bother making sure the effects look good (to be fair, he’s just a “consultant” this time around, but come on - you can’t do some cheap/free labor for the guy who made your career?). EVERYTHING is digital it seems, and while it pays off with the occasional nice gag (love the guy getting his head blown off with the scalp landing on the bloody stump on the neck), it just looks lousy, and that’s not how it should be with a Romero zombie movie, of all things. It’s bad enough to see it in any movie, but here, it’s like, almost sacrilegious or something. Give us back our melted pink crayon blood!
It’s also seemingly missing chunks of the narrative at times. Sarge loses his best friend, but doesn’t seem to remember him 5 seconds later. There’s a nonsensical plot “twist” with a twin sister that either had a better scene explaining it, or was simply poorly thought out to begin with, and one of O’Flynn’s main guys (Canadian horror movie stalwart Julian Richings) has noticeable cuts on his face that are never explained. And if there was a point to the subplot with the armored car key, it was lost on me. There’s also a really baffling/convoluted thing about O’Flynn tricking people to come to the island that I never fully understood, and it seemed to be forgotten about as soon as it was introduced. I’m sure George didn’t have the money for all of his ideas, which is always the case, but this is the first time it was so noticeable.
He also shot the film in 2.35 scope, which is rare (Land being the only other one). I’m not sure if it was worth the effort - he rarely uses the wide frame for anything meaningful, and from what I understand it’s more expensive to shoot that way for logistic reasons. I can only assume that since he was shooting the film digitally (with the Red camera, and it looks great for the record) he would give it a widescreen image to make up for it, but it seems very out of place, and if its true that it costs more to shoot that way, then that money most definitely should have been used to improve the effects and/or hire more zombies for the finale.
Ultimately, it’s a very mixed bag. I liked Diary the first time around, but on repeated viewings I liked it less, and my feelings on (my first viewing of) Survival about match what I think of Diary now. Usually that means that I’ll like the movie more a 2nd or 3rd time around, but I doubt I will ever see it as a triumph or even a logical “next step” for Romero. I know he’s still putting the effort in, unlike Hooper or Carpenter, but he has seemingly lost his ability to deliver the goods with the limited means he has at his disposal. At this point, I think he needs either a blank check or a gold watch.
What say you?