I find myself at odds with much of the critical community at the moment, and I'm certainly part of a distinct minority amongst horror fans. Because I happen to have enjoyed George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead. Very much. So much so, in fact, that I've come to the conclusion that it's his finest zombie effort since the original Dawn of the Dead.
This is the first time since Romero's original "trilogy" that he's been basically unencumbered by studio involvement and allowed to do things the closest to the way he used to do them. No Universal, no Weinsteins. And it shows. This is a much purer vision, a richly textured film with well-drawn characters, that works on you in a subtle, thoughtful way that few horror flicks do these days--and that Romero's pictures were once known for doing.
If I am to put my cards on the table, I should probably inform you that I liked Land of the Dead, and Diary of the Dead even more. I'm also aware that I'm in the minority on this, as well. But I can't help but think of how Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead were all fairly maligned in their own day to some extent, and wonder if we're not seeing the same phenomenon in recent years with his last three installments.
For the first time since Dawn of the Dead, we have some very likable, charismatic characters. Who also happen to be interesting and engaging, and like the great Romero characters of days gone by, complicated. The actors playing them are quite possibly the most talented I've ever seen in any Romero dead movies, discounting Land of the Dead, which was the only one featuring marquee "Hollywood" players. This is the only Romero zombie film featuring a cast or relative unknowns that I feel boasts a level of acting worthy of any mainstream studio production.
Romero is not known as an actor's director, and as a result, many of his films do suffer from subpar acting which we often forgive as merely B-movie kitschiness. But in Survival of the Dead, there's nothing to forgive. Picking up his role from Diary of the Dead, Alan Van Sprang is quite strong in the lead role. Canadian thespian Kenneth Welsh steals the picture as the inscrutable yet charming Patrick O'Flynn, one of the truly classic Romero characters. Richard Fitzpatrick is effective as a heavy that is suitably hateable without being two-dimensional. In fact, he ultimately might have been in the right all along (spoiler to come later). Perhaps the only thing that's never explained is what all these Irish guys are doing living on an island off the coast of Delaware...
To be clear, yes I am saying this is a better film than Day of the Dead. Much better structured (and I know the notorious budget pitfalls of Day have something to do with this), far better acted (with the exception of Howard Sherman as Bub), and with real, believable characters speaking real, believable dialogue. Also, I was never a fan of the more monstrous zombie makeup of Day. Believe it or not, I prefer my zombies looking more human, as this better drives home the point: These things are not monsters--they are merely dead human beings. The makeup in Survival, from Greg Nicotero and his excellent crew, is some of the very best of the entire series--subtle, restrained and most importantly, human.
That said, this brings me to what was one of the major problems I did have with the film, a problem that has been discussed ad nauseum. CGI blood and CGI effect shots in general are the bane of the horror movie genre, and it's sad to see even George Romero succumbing to their siren-like allure. Particularly, there is a head-shot in the opening of the film, and a gag later on involving a fire extinguisher, which are so poorly executed as to take you out of the film. Given the legendary work Nicotero has done on this series, and even more so Tom Savini before him, it's kind of a shame to see mid-level video game quality computer effects substituting where practical stuff would have been so much better. Nevertheless, the CGI is kept to a relative minimum, and there is actually a fine level of Romero-worthy gore peppered throughout.
Romero lovers like myself will find a few clever tips of the hat to Night, Dawn and Day, which was very nice to see. It was also very clever to tangentially connect the film to the events of Diary in a way which was very unexpected (the military gang chronicled here are the same bunch who hijacked the kids' vehicle in the last movie.)
I do need to talk about the ending, which was also a bit problematic for me. However, I know how up-in-arms you internet types get about your spoilers, so I'm going to go the old-school Ain't It Cool News route and cloak the next three paragraphs in "inviso-text". Highlight it if you choose to read...
For one thing, the climax of the film just felt a little off-kilter, as if it had been sort of thrown together. But then again, quite honestly, so did the endings of Dawn and Day. But more than that, I had a problem from a plot point-of-view with what happens with the zombies on the island. Our antagonist, Seamus Muldoon, has been refusing to put down the undead, instead hoping to teach them to eat animal flesh instead of human. The problem is that in the end, he seems to have succeeded.
As a Romero "purist" (whatever that means), it bothered me to have zombies being conditioned so quickly--after all, this is merely a week or two into the epidemic, I'm assuming. It messes with the accepted canon a bit, as we originally did not see zombies beginning to "learn" until many months after the outbreak began. By the end of this movie, we have a bunch of zombies chowing down on a horse in an admittedly brutal scene that I nevertheless found slightly silly, maybe because I've been conditioned to the Romero "rules" all these years, one of which states that zombies have no interest in animals. Nevertheless, the man made the rules, he can break them, right? Anyway, it's no more silly than the entire concept of dead people returning to life as cannibals, after all...
Another issue with the ending, from a logic standpoint, was the way in which Crocket and his team simply leave Plum Island. After all, they've just pretty much nullified the island's zombie problem, and taken out the bad guy. It seems like it would be the perfect place to hunker down during a zombie apocalypse, yet they leave. Oh, well.
Although it may lose a step or two at the end, as other Romero zombie movies do, Survival of the Dead is nevertheless a very effective and enjoyable horror movie. Romero does it a bit differently here, choosing to explore general social/cultural issues regarding human nature itself, rather than the more specifically political/topical commentary of some previous installments. I found this worked very well, as the politicized approach was getting a bit stale to me.
Uncle George came back strong with this one, and I found myself very pleasantly surprised. The result of diminished expectations? I suppose it's possible in part; after all, many people were talking about this flick like it was a completely abominable waste of time, and I was simply baffled trying to reconcile those opinions with the movie that was unfolding in front of me. This is an intelligent horror film which manages to provoke thought without being pretentious. This is the film that, more than Land or Diary, demonstrates what made me fall in love with Romero's earlier films in the first place.
So I'll stick to my decidedly minority opinion. Survival of the Dead will be a movie I cherish and re-watch along with my beloved original trilogy. It's a breath of fresh air from one of horror's true masters, amidst a sea of mediocre remakes, brain-dead teenybopper flicks and sadistic nihilism that represents much of the genre today.
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