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The Living Dead Series Survives… Barely

March 13, 2010

Zombies--and humans--are up to their old nasty tricks in George A. Romero's sixth zombie flick, Survival of the Dead.

When the dead start walking, and civilization collapses, you can be sure of one thing: George A. Romero will still be making zombie movies. Given that he raises his own financing, he would probably welcome the arrival of real zombies. They’re a hell of a lot cheaper than hiring all those union extras.

In his sixth zombie flick, Survival of the Dead, Romero sticks to his patented formula. Take a small group of hardy survivors, stick them in an isolated location, surround them with zombies, and let the slapstick and shocks rip. As terrifying as the original Night of the Living Dead was, each zombie film since has been buoyed by laughs as much as by horror. Survival of the Dead has so many laughs at zombies’ expense that it nearly qualifies as a parody.

This time around, a gang of ex-soldiers led by “Sarge” (Robert Downey Jr. lookalike Allan Van Sprang, with none of his acting talent) wanders its way around the Eastern seaboard, robbing survivors and trying to stay one step ahead of the never-ending hordes of zombies. Meanwhile, on an incestuously small island off the coast of Delaware, an ancient family feud is exacerbated by corpses’ pesky habit of not staying dead. When the patriarch of one family (Kenneth Walsh) is exiled by the other (Richard Fitzpatrick), he begins posting YouTube videos inviting survivors to come to the island—mainly to annoy his old rival. Sarge and his team take the bait, escaping one war for another. On little Plum Island, clan enmity trumps global apocalypse.

If you’re looking for a satire or potent metaphor in all this, don’t bother. The feud between the families starts promisingly enough: Patrick O’Flynn (Walsh) is committed to shooting relatives and neighbors as soon as they die, while Seamus Muldoon (Fitzpatrick) prefers to keep his undead kin in chains. Their Irish brogue, peasant dress and bucolic setting lend an otherworldly quality to the battle. There’s an interesting moral debate buried in this set-up, but Romero doesn’t have the patience to work it out. Soon enough the villainous Muldoon is blasting zombies too. By the final reel, the movie’s themes are so muddled that the Muldoons’ big project is getting a zombie to eat a horse.

Incoherence aside, Romero keeps the adventure moving along at a good clip. He’s still a master at delivering the sudden fright, and is endlessly innovative in the humorous new situations he puts zombies in. I got a particular kick out of the undead standing on the floor of a shallow harbor, waiting for a swimmer to snack on.

Romero’s script is a hot mess, full of one-liners so awful you laugh less out of reflex than sympathy, and the acting ranges from amateurish to acceptable. The cynical ethics of Romero’s post-apocalyptic world remain intact from prior films—the only way to prove your heroism is by sacrificing yourself to a gaggle of hungry corpses, followed by gratuitous shots of bright-red intestines being torn out. The final survivors, as always, are less joyous than simply weary.

Your tolerance for all this will depend less on your attraction to gore than your stomach for camp. At this point in his career, Romero is less interested in making social commentary than simply keeping a dwindling band of fan-boys moderately entertained for an hour and a half.

In the film’s final shot, two main characters—now undead, of course—stand in front of a harvest moon, repeating their past behavior for eternity. Sort of like Romero himself.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. d.a.l.f. permalink
    March 13, 2010 11:35 pm

    Is this playing in New York, or was it a one-off special screening? I wrote on Night of the Living Dead for Streible last semester and have been following these movies for a while now. And honestly, I’d rather Romero pander to fanboys at this point than try to make another half-assed allegory. Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead were significantly weakened by Romero’s attempts in capitalizing on NOTLD’s social subtext -“statements” that have gotten progressively duller in each film…

    • March 14, 2010 4:41 am

      It was a one-off showing at NYU, with Romero speaking afterwards. It was recently picked up for distribution and will start on Video-on-Demand and then move to a theatrical release in the top 20 markets, I believe in April.

      Stay tuned, because I plan to write something up soon on Romero’s appearance afterwards, where he talked a bit about the first film.

  2. bro permalink
    March 14, 2010 2:55 pm

    I know you have a thing for zombies, and NOTLD in particular, but isn’t the whole allegorical subtext thing blown way out of proportion for all of Romero’s work? I’ve heard interviews with Romero that the lone (black) survivor being killed at the end of NOTLD wasn’t intended as a criticism of race relations, so without that, where is the subtext? And everybody always assumes that Dawn of the Dead is a criticism of consumerism, but is it really? Ice skating zombies is an amusing image, but I’m not not sure it says anything about us a society.
    Two other random points- 1. I cant help but feel that the underwater zombies you refer are a ripoff of the underwater zombies in World War Z, which is ironic because Romero is very publicly not a fan of Max Brooks’s work. 2. I just happened to can through Romero’s filmography on IMDB, and found this- which frankly sounds more terrifying than any of this zombie flicks

  3. March 14, 2010 3:41 pm

    I’ll be addressing the issue of intentional metaphor in my story on Romero, but just because he didn’t intend a certain interpretation doesn’t mean an audience can’t read it that way.

    The point about Max Brooks is interesting, although not surprising. Romero is protective of his invention partly, I think, because the original film is in the public domain, and Romero has therefore failed to see a cent from the great majority of the remakes and sequels that have been made.


  1. Back to the Dead: George Romero on Making Zombie Films « My Own Worst Critic

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