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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Survival of the Dead: Romero's Best Zombie Film in Three Decades

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.


gord said...

For me the film ranked just a notch above Diary, which is in last place. I honestly didn't find the film that well paced, or well shot, or edited. It was just very generic overall, minus as you said the strong lead. And honestly, when the FUCK is Romero going to stop using CGI for even the easiest of effect shots. That pisses me off more than anything. Overall I guess I just found the whole thing very generic, and to be fair, while I understand that the original trilogy films were maligned during their time, I honestly don't see this film rising above it's current mediocre position.

The only distinguishing thing in the film that allowed it to perhaps rise slightly above the dozens of other zombie films released every year was the semblance of some sort of theme. While I don't think anything was put forward well (and certainly not as well as any of the themes presented in the originals), at least it tried to be more weighty than most zombie films. Unsuccessful but admirable.

And on Land of the Dead, I recognize that it's a bizarre movie, but I was glad to see Romero doing something bigger and just plain different than his previous films. I think if it had come out as say the 5th film, instead of the 4th, and after such a lengthy break, it would have been better received as Romero doing something different, instead of people seeing it as something they waited X amount of years for.

Frank White said...

This one is a toss up for me. I've always thought Day was underrated and Land is a guilty pleasure, but Diary was an abomination that made me want to curl up into a little ball and die.

The Mike said...

I like your perspective, and agree with most of your points (I also find it to be better than Day, and probably also Diary.)

I'm definitely going to be watching it again, and hope it hits me more strongly in the future.

Cinema Suicide said...

High fives, B-Sol! I also liked Survival immensely. We part ways on a few points. For instance, I was so deeply let down by Diary that the mere mention of Survival was upsetting since I wasn't sure I could handle another Romero zombie misfire.

I also happen to love Day of the Dead. It's my favorite of the pack for all the reasons you seem to dislike it.

Lastly, I didn't think any of the characters were developed beyond generic zombie bait. Every movie has at least a couple of extremely charismatic characters, good or bad, I didn't feel like this one had any. No one was particularly memorable to me.

However, regarding your spoiler text: I think you have to step outside of canon for this one. Romero retconned the series with Diary so we're not technically playing by the old rules with his new zombie movies. He's free to revise his own playbook, I suppose.

B-Sol said...

The CGI is indeed unfortunate. At least we agree that it's trying to be higher-minded than some of the more exploitative zombie fare (as Romero always), I just felt it succeeded.

I fully realize that few share my opinion of Diary. I should say that I could do without the narration, but overall I found it an interesting break for Romero.

I should also point that I don't dislike Day, some may have gotten that impression from what I said. I do think it's a bit overrated, and simply not in the same class as Night and Dawn.

I see what you're saying about canon, Bryan. I guess I have to let go! Also, you didn't enjoy Patrick O'Flynn? I thought he was a very cool character who grew on me more and more as the movie went on. His interaction with Crocket was interesting as well.

Pax Romano said...

Well Said, B-Sol, I agree with you. This is probably one of his better films.

I've been thinking about Muldoon being correct all along - sort of like that other bastard, Mr. Cooper, in NOLD, no?

As for the ending, It did feel sort of slapped together, but I think that maybe, Romero likes these three so much, he might continue their story - who knows?

As for the horse eating - well, all I can say is, my stomach turned - and that has not happened since I saw the tearing apart of Capt Rhodes in Day of the Dead.

All in all, a great film by Uncle Georgie.

gord said...

On a similar note, I tried showing my girlfriend the original Dawn this week. While she has seen all sorts of horror films, and loved them, she's never really watched many zombie ones. Anyways, we had to turn it off before the crew even left the apartment buildings because she was so revolted. Success!

Well sort of. I now have to convince her that it's worth it to continue the film. Apparently she has some sort of aversion to seeing people being eaten by other people...And as if Dawn is the grossest film shes ever seen.

Anonymous said...

I struggle with this one. On the one hand, I feel like it had some interesting things to say conceptually: man still being cruel and self-serving, even in a time of crisis. But I think Romero could have been better served by being a little more subtle about it (the scene at the dinner table with the chained woman/servant was particularly irritating).

And the cartoony CGI did derail it in some points for me.

Regardless, it was still solid and better than most zombie fare nowadays. Out of all of his recent output, this one still has me thinking and its growing on me.

Great review.

deadlydolls said...

I haven't seen Survival yet, but you make some excellent points about Romero's reception. Day was lambasted in its day, both by general critics (rightly so; I hate the shouting!) and horror fans.

Romero is one of those directors whose films get better with age and nostalgia. I think because of their conventional 'not-goodness', that first contemporary viewing just always shows the flaws whereas years later, viewers can dismiss a lot as product of its time and enjoy the rest. NOBODY had anything good to say about Day in the 1990s, and similarly, I think a lot of people are starting to come around on Land of the Dead. I enjoyed a lot of Diary but felt that the film would have benefited tremendously from cutting that terribly obvious narration. Still, it was a filmmaker playing with new toys and concepts and a lot of it worked for me.

B-Sol said...

Pax: Muldoon is indeed very much like Cooper, in that he was (arguably) correct, despite being a total prick. And Romero is a daring storyteller for going that route.

Gord: That tenement scene is pretty damn bleak--I had trouble getting through it myself when I first saw the film at age 15. It's grim, violent and depressing. I do believe my wife had similar difficulty even getting past that part.

Emily: I can remember when Day came out, it being a total bomb and a joke. It was considered a total failure for years before younger fans discovered it. I can see people coming around to Land now, as well.

Chris H said...

Very good review, B-Sol, even if I don't agree with you 100% on a lot of points (especially regarding Day, haha).

Unfortunately expectactions are SO high for a new Romero film, it's tough to go in without a deflated feeling afterward, no matter how solid the effort might be. I actually did really enjoy this one and felt a filmic high after a very fun and lively screening of Survival.

I dunno, I kinda wish we could see a new Romero film that has no living dead whatsoever. Who knows, maybe someday...

Kelly said...

I loved the movie. The humor in it alone is worth the price! I read an interview with Romero where he said he needs the CGI because it helps save money and is cheaper to do. So, even though I don't like it, either, it seems we're stuck with it.

Great movie, and nice review!

ZedWord said...

Wasn't Romero's Diary of the Dead made without studio involvement?

Regardless, I'm with you in that I really enjoyed Survival of the Dead and considered it, in tone, to be worthy successor to Dawn of the Dead.

Day of the Dead, however, holds a special place in my heart as the best of Romero's films.

I don't think that the behavior exhibited by the zombies at all breaks with Romero canon. I can't go into why without spoilers though, so if you're interested in my thoughts you can always shoot me an email.

Anyways, I'm glad I have some company in the minority of reviewers who actually enjoyed Survival of the Dead. Diary of the Dead, however, is still the pits though. Sweet zombie Jesus, I hate that movie.

B-Sol said...

Chris, I would love to see Romero try something completely outside the genre, that could be very interesting.

Kelly, I see what you mean about the CGI. It is a big money-saver, naturally, and Romero needs as many of those as he can get. Guess I just long for the time when it wasn't an option lol

Zed, Diary was distributed by the Weinstein Company, and they did have some involvement. Anyway, yes, there seems to be a vocal minority of Survival-lovers out there!

ZedWord said...

While the Weinsteins distributed the film that doesn't mean they were involved in the production of Diary. The Weinsteins acquired the film in September of 2007 after it played at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film was written and cast and shot without the Weinsteins' involvement. Diary was Romero-Grunwald Production produced with Artfire Films. The Weinsteins were only involved in the distribution and marketing; the film was independently produced by Romero's company. It's inaccurate to say Survivor was the "first time since Romero's original 'trilogy' that he's been basically unencumbered by studio involvement" Diary is his first independent film after his unhappy studio experience making Land of the Dead. As much as I'd like to think Diary sucked because the studio mucked with it, all the facts suggest that film is the film Romero wanted to make.

gord said...

Can I just say that I'm glad that Day (which has almost always been my fave of the films) is getting so much love here. I honestly thought I was the only one.

B-Sol said...

And to be clear, I definitely love it too--it's just my least favorite of the original three.


Who You Gonna Call
Tel 44-(0)208-323 8013
Fax 44-(0)208 323 8080

Hi B-SOL and everyone,

On behalf of Magnolia Pictures / Magnet and the movie’s producers and director, many thanks for plugging George A. Romero’s "Survival of the Dead" ... .. thanks also, on behalf of the distributors and producers, for not posting links to any pirate copies of “Survival of the Dead" on this site... .. and if you / your readers want good quality, non-pirated, previews, then the official, red-band trailer is available for fans and bloggers to post / host / share etc via the official site at www.magnetreleasing.com/survivalofthedead ... .. for further details of on-line promotions for this movie and Magnolia / Magnet releases generally, check-out www.magpictures.com and their official YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/user/MagnoliaPictures, along with IGN’s entry for the movie at http://uk.movies.ign.com/objects/142/14286833.html.

Thanks again for your plug.



B-Sol said...

What I did was review Survival of the Dead. What you did was plug it.

Randy said...

what the hell are you smoking, and can i please have some?

deadlydolls said...

Okay, so now I've finally seen it.

Sadly, I can't play on your team the way I did for Human Centipede and the NOES remake. I still agree that DAY is overrated, LAND is underrated (best since DAWN) and DIARY is wrongly despised, but SURVIVAL...I don't even know.

I like that Romero got playful and decided to have some goofy pie-fight-like fun with the zombies, but the execution of this film was horrendous. I think some actors equipped themselves better than others (and way better than DIARY) but the characters were so broadly drawn. Look! A lesbian who will constantly refer to herself as such. Look! The Irish are eating potatoes! Cowboys act like cowboys! IRISH COWBOYS IN DELAWARE!!!

I don't think it was a complete waste of time--I liked the ferry stuff and the idea of keeping the zombies in their past states in case of a cure--but I just found myself constantly going "ohhhhh Georgie." Maybe, like Land, it will age better. His films generally do. But I'm just so baffled by those 90 minutes.

And why, why oh why does he now insist on inserting ham-fisted narration into all of his films?

And two correction-ishes:

1. I don't know that Romero zombies ever didn't eat animals. In NIGHT (admittedly not the best source for the mythology, since they also move faster and use tools) there's that very famous shot of a zombie eating a bug. I don't ever recall them not eating anything live, although I guess it was hinted at that they wouldn't be sated with animal guts in DAY, but I think if something moved, they killed. It was SNyder's remake that was more specific about the humans-only diet methinks.

The survivors at the end didn't actually know about the eaten horse, since Jenny/Janice/whatever-the-Irish-girl-not-named-Kate was shot before she could tell them. Slight NIGHT homage, perhaps.

B-Sol said...

That's it, Emily. You're nothing to me know--you're not a brother, you're not a friend. When you're visiting our mother, I want to know a day in advance, so I won't be there.

Ahem. Sorry, couldn't help it. Hey, we can't agree on everything, can we?? I do agree though, that the shooting of the daughter at the end was a total homage to the original NOTLD.

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