Friday, 19 July 2013

(George A. Romero's) Survival of the Dead - review

2009 (USA/Canada)

Contains mild spoilers.

I really don't know what to make of this. I understood going in, it wasn't his best effort; heck who am I kidding, everywhere I looked I could see everyone calling it his weakest. I recently watched Diary of the Dead and for all it did right it was still a far cry from the giddy and provocative first trilogy and this I read, was supposed to be worse. Having now watched it I'll agree it's not likely to win any awards but I didn't think it was as bad as all that...

Survival of the Dead or to give it its full title George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead; already a sign they didn't have a lot of confidence in it, is the sixth and currently last instalment of the dead series he started way back in 1968 with the game-changing Night of the Living Dead. After the relatively big budget and mainstream Landof the Dead (which I actually really liked), Diary of the Dead was an attempt to reboot the franchise, and return an indie look and feel to the franchise. With a equally modest low budget Survival of the Dead is a direct sequel with the same world, the same problems and even some of the same characters.

The bulk of the film is set three weeks after armageddon. Colonel 'Nicotine' Crockett (Alan van Sprang), disillusioned with the armed defence has deserted with three of his troopers deciding his best chances of survival are out in the sticks, alone with a heavy emphasis on 'whatever it takes' and 'to hell with everyone else'. Here the soldiers run into and dispatch a sadistic group of red-neck hunters, pick up a young lad we never hear the name of (Devon Bostick) who shows them an internet video (more of this later) from a Captain Patrick O' Flynn (Kenneth Welsh) who comes across a bit Captain Birdeye, who promises an undead free paradise on Plum Island.

Cutting to the chase, Crockett and his troop end up on the island with the previously exiled O' Flynn and right slap bang into the middle of a feud with the islands rival family lead by Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick). The reason for this latest spat they learn was a differing opinion on how best to deal with the sudden rise of the dead and buried.

Romero has never shied away from divisive political or cultural ideologies fuelling his films with racial, consumerist, military and media subtexts. I've written much on the topic but with Survival it's harder to pinpoint exactly the metaphor is, or whether there really is one. O' Flynn is the pragmatist. He believes in survival and safety and favours killing the dead at each and every opportunity whether their loved ones agree or not.  Muldoon is the idealist, steadfast that how ever difficult it might be, it is it up to them to protect the dead from harm and pray and wait for a cure or salvation. Both are dogmatic in their views and prepared to kill the other to see their ideology played out. Over the length of the film we get to see that both are right and wrong, and perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle but either way both are wrong for trying to force their single world view onto everyone. Perhaps it's the pitfall and inherent (self)destruction in staunch dogmatism that's Romero's message, or perhaps I'm just reading too much into it the whole thing (quite likely). Either way it's this clash of ideologies and personalities that forms the backbone of the story and after O' Flynn returns a violent clash was always inevitable.

They're shambling, they're brain-dead, they like human flesh and they like to hang out with the like minded in big groups. Romero's zombies have rarely been that threatening or vicious and even though the film is still full of trademark over the top kills and violence never before have I seen zombies, when on their own so unassuming and dare I say pathetic. Many of the imaginative ways Sarge 'Nicotine' and his troop find to dispatch the undead come from the sheer amount of time they find themselves with to set them up.

Despite this though, at other times, when it's one on one and mainly when it's one on one with a side character, it all seems rather easy and convenient for the zombie to overpower their victims and get a bite in. The contradictions aren't isolated to the zombie kills either. On the one hand the premise is that the majority of the worlds population have turned into zombies; it's the end of the world, hell on earth, etc. Yet, on the other we're still being told there's electricity, wireless internet, comedy talk shows and those survivors that are left don't seem to be that overly worried about the whole thing. Romero's films have always contained a little humour and parody but here it's all a bit too jarring and dare I say farcical.

In many respects, and I'll probably get lynched for this, Survival of the Dead isn't that much different to Day of the Dead. The characters are wooden and a bit cliché , the dialogue is generally quite trite and the zombie deaths are over-staged. Whilst I'm not going to honestly go as far as saying it is as good, they're really not as different as the internet seems to alude. Both are heavy character driven narratives with characters you never really care about and both really only use the zombies to drive the interaction and conflict. The one big difference though is in Day of Dead the zombies in the background always pose a credible threat and their persistent presence weighs heavy on the group increasing the tension. You never feel this in Survival; the zombies are herded around like livestock and never feel particularly threatening. Even during the big finale you kind of feel those who are actually killed only have themselves to blame and could have probably avoided getting bit if they'd just been a little less careless.

Survival of the Dead isn't a bad film, it's just not a particularly good one. Whilst it still has signs of the trademark Romero imagination for the most part it's quite mundane and feels like its really just going through the motions.  Despite all the flaws though, which are many, a mundane Romero zombie film is much better than many others. The story is original, the over the top Romero zombie kills are a feast for the eyes and there's still enough here for the zombie disciple to get his teeth into, 6/10.


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