Painful as it is to write, it may finally be time for George A. Romero to give up the dead -- or at least the undead. While it’s a treat to see the godfather of the contemporary zombie film get back to his typical visual aesthetic with Survival of the Dead after the stylistic departure of Diary of the Dead -- an inspired yet some might say flawed excursion into subjective cinema -- it quickly becomes apparent that the man who built his reputation on creating socially conscious shock cinema, quite sadly, doesn’t really have much new to say. Ever since Ben caught a bullet between the eyes at the end of that first long night, we’ve known that humankind can be its own worst enemy when it all goes down, and here Romero is doing little more than flogging a flesh-eating corpse as he takes us to an island safe haven where a lingering family feud threatens to fray the few remaining threads still holding society together.
The zombie apocalypse is under way. Patrick O'Flynn (Kenneth Welsh) lives on Plum Island, a secluded Shangri-la that’s still functioning thanks to its remote location. But that’s not to say it’s completely unaffected by the recent events; when the locals start coming back from the dead, O’Flynn reaches the painful yet practical conclusion that the only good zombie is a dead zombie, and forms a posse to insure that every gut-muncher on the isle is properly disposed of. Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), on the other hand, still holds out hope that scientists will discover a cure for society’s scourge, and stands firm in his belief that the zombies should not be killed, but simply secured until they can be either cured or trained to assist man. When the two clash, O’Flynn is banished from the island and sent to fend for himself on the mainland. There, he cooks up a corny ad campaign inviting survivors to join him on Plum Island, biding his time until he can get back to his rightful home. When rogue military man Crocket (Alan Van Sprang) and his gang see the ad, they eventually take the bait, only to find themselves stuck right in the middle of the ongoing feud between the O’Flynns and the Muldoons once they finally arrive at their insular oasis.
While it’s difficult to fault Romero for standing by his beloved rotting corpses -- he does, after all, owe virtually his entire career to them -- there still has to be a certain point when we start to ask ourselves why the man who’s given us such original and thought-provoking films such as There’s Always Vanilla, Knightriders, Martin, and even the little-seen Bruiser (love it or hate it, the film still raises some interesting questions about identity and the personal nature of revenge) still finds himself compelled to revisit the same story time and again despite the quite noticeable diminishing returns. Sure, he never bastardized his original vision quite like George Lucas did with the second Star Wars trilogy, but the sad fact is we’ve pretty much been there and done that at this point; Logan (Richard Liberty) and Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) already bickered over the idea of reforming/training zombies to much more striking effect 15 years ago in Day of the Dead, and if the pie fight in Dawn of the Dead failed to provide your lifetime recommended allotment of cornball Romero humor, Survival occasionally borders on becoming an outright comedy with its schticky zombie sight gags.
Admittedly, however, it’s the humor of Survival of the Dead that ultimately serves to draw us in to the story, and warm us to the characters. Each entry in the Dead series has its standout characters, and even when this one starts to feel overly familiar, it’s the performances by Welsh and Fitzpatrick in particular that command our attention and prevent atrophy from setting in. That and the contributions of cinematographer Adam Swica, who effortlessly shifts out of Diary’s video gear to deliver a classically cinematic film that’s quite effective in setting the ominous tone we’ve all come to know and expect from a Romero zombie flick. And though his storytelling skills may leave something to be desired these days, Romero’s talents as a director are still razor-sharp. Together, he and Swica make a fairly solid technical team, creating a movie that’s consistently watchable even when it’s hopelessly predictable.
Despite not being Romero’s prettiest effort, Diary at least approached the familiar story from a different angle while presenting a thoughtful reflection on the evolving media. Survival may look great, but if only some fresh ideas were there to back up those deliciously gothic images, it wouldn’t feel like Romero was dishing out the same old gruel -- just slightly warmed over -- to his ravenous fan base. We still love ya George -- maybe it’s just time to let walking corpses wander, and surprise us with something that doesn’t shamble or stink of decay.
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- Released: 2009
- Rating: R
- Review: Painful as it is to write, it may finally be time for George A. Romero to give up the dead -- or at least the undead. While it’s a treat to see the godfather of the contemporary zombie film get back to his typical visual aesthetic with Survival of the Dead… (more)