Review: George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead

(Yeah, that's how I felt.)

“Who knows?  Maybe they’ll learn something.”

Q:  What does George A. Romero have in common with Orson Welles and Michael Cimino?

A:  Great beginnings…not so great on the back end.

Romero blasted onto the scene in 1968 with the original zombie nightmare, Night of the Living Dead.  A genre-defining, taboo-gouging piece of horror excellence, Night was to modern horror cinema what Welles’ Citizen Kane was to American film in general, and Cimino’s The Deer Hunter was to the contemporary, post-Vietnam American epic drama.   Welles took his interest in theater and the classics and went on to make several other masterpieces (from The Magnificent Ambersons up through the delirious documentary F for Fake), but the Kane experience was never to be matched, nor its promise replicated.  Cimino’s work dropped off drastically, and the director ended up as a journeyman of pallid thrillers that didn’t even resemble his earlier work.  But Romero took a different path, thanks mostly to the genre he helped form;  after Night came a handful of modest thrillers, and ten years passed before his second masterpiece, Dawn of the Dead.  Socially relevant, gory and morbidly funny, Dawn refreshed everyone’s memory:  this guy Romero, he was something else.

But after that second outing of the dead, Romero wavered somewhat, bouncing from brilliant-but-ignored drama (Knightriders) to daring failure (Bruiser), and in between, always able to accommodate some slick, if uneven, Stephen King horror (Creepshow, Monkey Shines, The Dark Half).  The Dead series did continue, though the seeming trilogy came to a close with Day of the Dead, which made a sharp drop in substance after Night and Dawn.  Perhaps Romero was stirred by the generic Night remake in 1990, or Zack Snyder’s rather brilliant 2005 remake of Dawn.  And one year later, Land of the Dead appeared, a tale of a high-rise stronghold where the rich live well and everyone else struggles to get by in the streets below…with an army of zombies outside the gates, learning to adapt in some interesting ways.   Land did the one thing the previous films never did, or in the case of Day never did well:  took the walking dead and gave them some small semblance of their former humanity.  A curious concept, though Land was more memorable for a stiff but funny Dennis Hopper role than the actual plot.  And when did plot ever matter to a Romero Dead film?  These things always ended the same way:  one crack in the defenses leading to gruesome chaos;  the zombies get in, and very few humans get out.

But Land had an interesting effect on Romero:  he was excited about zombies again, and he also seemed to realize you can’t do five straight films the same way.  So in 2007, we were treated to Diary of the Dead, easily the best Dead film since Dawn.  Made exclusively with handheld cameras, ala Blair Witch and Cloverfield, Diary was tense and eerie, and felt complete in ways some of the previous films had failed to.  And about halfway through Diary, our intrepid band of filmmakers are stopped by a caravan of renegade soldiers who take all of their weapons and supplies.

Enter 2009’s Survival of the Dead: the “Colonel” who lead that raid is Sarge Nick “Nicotine” Crockett (Alan Van Sprang), who is getting his team together when they are attacked by some rather fast-changing zombie soldiers.  They depart but need to find a new safe haven, and the country is looking pretty desolate after all these years of undead mayhem.  They decide to move to Plum Island, off the eastern coast, based on the suggestion of old man Flynn, who just happens to be an outcast from the island.  What the soldiers don’t know is that the island has been the site of an age-old Hatfield/McCoy-style clan dispute that has resulted in some zombie issues of their own.

And all of this would be just fine if the film were, well, better.  Bountiful CG gore effects are sloppy and unrefined;  acting intensity is equated to shouting;  one of the revelations has to do with an unexpected twin…one of the oldest and lamest surprises in the history of film.  But one could ignore all this if the film had some thrills, humor and fun wrapped up in all the clichés and nonsense, but Survival is one of the absolute dullest horror films in recent memory.  That it was made by Romero, the man himself, makes that fact all the more disappointing.  And it really points up the futility of any further exercises.

Survival of the Dead needs to be the end of the zombie line for Romero.  Maybe he can work as a consultant on an inevitable World War Z adaptation, or veer off into some other, unexpected directions.  The man who made Knightriders is a man of surprises and excellence.  But the Dead films are – forgive me – DOA.

[Survival of the Dead did not get an expected theatrical release this weekend in Dallas, though it is playing in Austin. It may still be available via Video On Demand, check your provider for availability.]