Picking up immediately after the events of 2008’s Diary of the Dead, Survival
of the Dead is the sixth film from writer-director George
Romero to posit and examine a world where humans are in the minority, and flesh-eating
zombies rule. It’s also a sad confirmation of if not his complete creative bankruptcy then certainly his wildly diminished gift for imparting glancing metaphorical dread.
The film opens off the coast of Delaware on Plum Island (based loosely on the same-named remote animal disease center 100 miles northeast of New
York City, in the Long Island Sound), where zombiedom is apparently only the latest wrinkle in a generations-long struggle for power between two families. The O’Flynn clan, headed by patriarch Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh, dialing up the Billy Connelly), approach the zombie plague with a lock-and-load, shoot-to-kill attitude. The Muldoons, headed up by Shamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), feel that the zombies should be quarantined and kept alive, in hopes that a solution will someday be found.
When Shamus and his crew get the drop on Patrick, they force him into exile by boat, where on the mainland he meets up with a band of soldiers, headed by the square-jawed Sarge (Alan Van Sprang). After a shootout and standoff, a cajoling Patrick rebrands himself and misrepresents his mission, sneakily getting Sarge and his military brethren to sign on for a return to the island. There, they find that the zombie plague has fully gripped the divided community. As the battle between humans and zombies escalates, Patrick has to come to terms with a difficult reunion with his infected daughter, Janet (Kathleen Munroe).
A huge part of Romero’s justifiably earned credit as a master genre filmmaker lies in his blend of humor and pointed social commentary within the horror milieu. Survival of the Dead reveals, though, in the starkest terms possible,
that a large part of Romero’s reputation has always been a result of diminished expectation — of his penchant for being able to do more with less, in terms of production resources and a professionally trained cast.
Many other reviews will likely pull punches regarding the craftsmanship of the film, but Survival of the Dead repeatedly exhibits poor choices on both narrative and technical levels, from picking the wrong point of entry into the story as a whole and dawdling with less interesting set-ups to flatly framing its action. In fact, none of the attack sequences are either executed at a skill level high enough to raise heart rates, or even staged in a fashion to evoke such feelings.
Furthermore, there’s a warped, nonsensical nature to the film’s interior logic. (Hammy performances and awkward, emotionally-on-the-nose dialogue don’t help matters.) Characters are by various turns motivated by money (in a world where clearly this no longer matters) and misplaced senses of air-quote glory, even when they’re aware of the apocalyptic conditions of the world beyond the story’s most immediate borders.
Most damningly, though, Romero doesn’t seem to bring into focus any viable subtext, to prop up what is otherwise an exceedingly one-note, uninteresting conflict. There’s the faintest hint of Shamus serving as a stand-in for isolationist/anti-immigration viewpoints (“We have an obligation to protect what’s ours,” he thunders at one point), but this isn’t ever developed in a substantive way, and so interpretations in this regard wither on the vine. Even Romero doesn’t seem to know — or care — where all of this is really going. Somewhat miraculously, the film builds to a climax — involving the attempted training of zombies to eat animal meat, rather than persons — where even
one of the main characters dozes off. If a gun-toting fundamentalist in a supposedly tense standoff in a world full of marauding zombies can’t be bothered to stay awake and invested in the proceedings, how can an audience? (Magnet, R, 90 minutes)