Survival of the Dead (United States/Canada, 2009)

May 20, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Survival of the Dead Poster

For a 20 year period, from the release of Day of the Dead in 1985 to the opening of Land of the Dead in 2005, George A. Romero was off doing other things. Since then, however, this one-time horror innovator has become a one-trick pony. Admittedly, his decision to make more movies about zombies may have had something to do with their return to popularity in the mid-2000s. Perhaps it galled him to see other filmmakers succeeding in a playground he built, and he decided he wanted to get back into the game. That explains (if not entirely excuses) Land of the Dead. Although I found Diary of the Dead, Romero's 2007 installment, to be of little consequence, at least it attempted something different. Survival of the Dead falls into the category of "flogging a dead horse." There's little here that's new or interesting; the movie is for hard-core Romero devotees only, and even they should approach this picture with expectations kept in check.

Survival of the Dead once again transpires in the Romero post-apocalyptic world where the dead don't have the good manners to stay dead. The film opens with two disparate plot threads that eventually converge. On a small island off the coast of Delaware, two feuding families - the O'Flynns and the Muldoons - have conflicting opinions about how to deal with the departed. Patrick O'Flynn (Kenneth Walsh) believes in putting down the zombies while Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) wants to keep them chained up until a cure can be discovered. A confrontation between Patrick and Seamus results in the former being exiled from the island and forced to take a small boat to the mainland. Meanwhile, a group of ex-military mercenaries, led by Sergeant "Nicotine" Crocket (Alan Van Sprang), are camped in Philadelphia and trying to determine their next move. When they see an Internet commercial produced by Patrick touting the benefits of life on the island where he was formerly a resident, they are intrigued enough to seek out the old man.

Survival of the Dead has a curious tone. There's nothing remotely scary about the production - not even a good "boo!" moment or two - which leads one to believe Romero is going for something else. The allegorical aspects are obvious, especially those relating to the stupidity of a human vs. human conflict in a world that's falling apart. But the movie comes across more as a parody than a serious endeavor. Zombie deaths are engineered to occur in a wide variety of fashions, most of which feature laughably over-the-top gore. There's an instance in which a character fires a flare into a zombie's head then pauses to use the flaming corpse to light a cigarette before dispatching the creature. At times, there's almost an Evil Dead 2 vibe to the proceedings, which is a change from anything the director has previously attempted. The problem is that he's not as adept at satire as Sam Raimi and, for a horror/comedy to succeed, it needs to contain both laughs and scares. (See Zombieland.) Survival of the Dead pokes fun at the genre, but it is rarely openly funny and is never frightening. The result skews boring.

The characters fall into two groups. There are the clich├ęd ex-military types who employ superior firepower to mow through the hoards. Alan Van Sprang places his tongue deep enough in his cheek when delivering some of his dialogue that the average viewer might remember him. His armed-and-dangerous compatriots (a.k.a. "zombie food") are considerably less memorable. Then there are the nutty feuding guys with Irish accents - their eccentricities are more interesting than their personalities, and Romero fails to develop their core philosophical struggle beyond the bare minimum necessary to advance the plot.

Lacking a crystal ball, I can't divine whether this is Romero's final foray into the twisted world he created more than 30 years ago with Night of the Living Dead or whether he's planning more movies. Considering that many of the best recent zombie films have been comedies, perhaps the less serious, more jokey tone of Survival of the Dead is a sign of things to come. Ultimately, though, it looks like Romero is stuck in a rut and needs to move on. Another movie along the lines of Survival of the Dead won't help his reputation or that of the sub-genre he pioneered.

Survival of the Dead (United States/Canada, 2009)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2010-05-28
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1