Wednesday, September 22, 2010

George A. Romero's SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (2010)

On the DVD, George A. Romero explains that his sixth "Dead" film can be seen as the second film of a trilogy that is already complete. This second trilogy begins chronologically with the second film released of the three, Diary of the Dead, and ends with the first film released, Land of the Dead. They have a character, or at least a performer, in common: Alan Van Sprang, who plays "Brubaker" in Land, an unnamed Colonel who hassles the video crew in Diary, and the same character promoted to the lead in Survival. The new film includes a flashback establishing "Nicotine" Crockett as the same character we saw in Diary, though he's somehow been demoted to Sergeant since then. Sometime in the future, presumably, he'll change his name to become the character glimpsed in Land. This is all very interesting to know, but it isn't essential to appreciating or critiquing Survival, since Crockett is more or less a straight man for his fellow soldiers and the people he encounters on Plum Island, Delaware.

In a way, Survival is a reversal of Day of the Dead, with military folk as the relatively sane ones entering a domain of madness. The similarity extends to an island clan's efforts to tame and train their zombified relatives. That clan, the Muldoons, have driven their old rivals the O'Flynns off the island because patriarch Patrick O'Flynn took a zero-tolerance approach to zombies and the infected. O'Flynn goes online to lure survivors from across the country to Delaware, where he expects either to recruit them for the retaking of Plum or simply to roll them for wealth and weapons. After attempting to ambush Crockett's little band, O'Flynn ends up their ally as the soldiers discover the atrocities committed by the Muldoons. It becomes obvious soon enough that there are no good guys on Plum, except perhaps for O'Flynn's estranged daughter, whose survival after her father's exile is thrown into question.

More than ever for Romero, the zombie threat is just a McGuffin here, a backdrop for a feuding-patriarchs storyline very reminiscent of The Big Country, especially in its conclusion. By now, Romero is clearly having a hard time taking the zombies seriously. They're as gruesome as ever when they make their customary final rush (and when Romero reverts to practical gore effects after economizing on CGI blood earlier), but too often he makes them objects for sight gags. One is shot in the chest by a flare gun; for some reason that ignites its head. Another is force fed from a fire extinguisher until its eyes pop out of its head.

But at the same time some zombies become figures of pathos or a kind of gothic awe. A female zombie on horseback rides through the landscape like a figure out of folklore; the effect is eerily thrilling rather than horrific. But the story is less about the Dead than about the foibles of the living, with a moral Romero drives home with overkill (literally, you might say) in an editorializing, superfluous coda.

Romero's second trilogy doesn't compare with his first, but Survival is a big improvement on the hamfisted Diary, which wasted our time making Romero's who-cares point about our modern obsession with recording ourselves. If Survival doesn't really function as a horror film, despite some chilling moments and excellent exploitation of a dread-inducing landscape, it works for me as a pulpy adventure story with a slight accent of Celtic exoticism and an ensemble cast that performs with guileless conviction. The dialogue is often on a comic-book level, but the actors sell it sincerely, especially Kenneth Welsh as O'Flynn, a figure of malevolent exuberance. As long as you know what to expect (and what not to), Survival of the Dead should provide 90 minutes of undemanding entertainment, with a decent bit of gore for a chaser. You can almost feel Romero's frustration that he can't make films without zombies anymore (and he can barely get those made following the undeserved failure of Land), but he still has a certain genius for making something from next to nothing. The title may sound like an oxymoron, but it may be the director's defiant statement on the state of his career right now.


venoms5 said...

I have yet to see this, but really need to pick it up. I'm hoping that I will like it. I'm one of the few that enjoyed DIARY. It had a few minor parts I could have done without, but I appreciated the numerous long takes and some of the scenarios were nicely done. Apparently, Romero has at least two more zombie epics in him.

Samuel Wilson said...

Diary isn't terrible, but it seemed to belabor the obvious to me, maybe because I'd seen Cloverfield not long before. I'll give Romero credit for starting the zombie saga over in order to imagine how 21st century society might break down gradually compared to society c. 1968. As long as Romero considers Land, Diary and Survival as a set I'll recommend them all.

Hellbilly Hollywood said...

Interesting, I never saw the "sight gags" in Romero's stuff to be gags. I always kind of thought of it as the people were, by these points, so used to the zombies, that, yes while dangerous, were not the same scary thing they used to be. Like walking home past a big dog each day. Though still a threat, it looses that scariness.

Sam Juliano said...

For me, Romero made all his pertinent point about consumerism and societal woes in the first three films. This trilogy established nothing we hadn't already seen in a thematic sense, and the films degenerated into silliness.

Needless to say, a superbly penned essay here.

Samuel Wilson said...

Hellbilly: I get your point, and that's probably one reason why Romero sticks with slow zombies, but the gags seem more overtly comical here. In the past, they struck me as gore showcases, but CGI allows Romero to get away with more extravagant gag effects. I don't have a problem with it, but people who expect pure horror films might get annoyed.

Sam. Land and Survival at least prove to be entertaining adventure stories, and I felt that Land made a fresh point about class conflict. Survival is relatively unpretentious until a very heavyhanded coda that tries to turn the story into some comment about war. The ending looks and feels completely superfluous.

Ben said...

Y'know, I'm not sure I buy that whole line about Romero being unable to get non-zombie movies made... is that something he's actually stated at some point?

After all, we are talking about a man who spent most of the '70s and '80s making for-the-most-part very good zombieless movies, and who was prepared to wait almost a decade to make both "Dawn.." and "Day.." in order to ensure he had the backing he needed to make the films without compromise.

It seems odd to me that the same guy - now additionally armed with widely acknowledged 'legend' status and kickbacks from the hollywood remakes - should feel pressured into making a load of sub-par zombie movies in quick succession, rather than following his presumably non-zombie related dreams..?

(Not meant as a slight on your fine review btw - just thinking out loud...)

Samuel Wilson said...

No slight taken, Ben, and it's my own inference rather than a complaint I've actually seen Romero make. I infer his plight from the dwindling distribution of his films since Land. His failure to get an adaptation of Stephen King's The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon off the ground is also telling. On the other hand, if he can get movies made on the budgets of his last two films, he might get non-zombie films done for as much money, or less.

Hellbilly Hollywood said...

Good point Samuel, but I learned long ago that many horror fans will find something to get annoyed about, even if it isn't there. haha.

I do kind of feel for Romero. I mean making a classic like Dawn of the Dead, which is my fav film of all time, would be hard to top.