“We went AWOL around the time the rest of the world did. We became stick-up guys, stopping people on the road, taking whatever they had. We held up this bunch of kids in a Winnebago shooting a documentary about themselves. Went out on the internet. Millions of hits. I became notorious. Could have gotten an agent. Made a fortune if there was anybody left to care. It had become an us-versus-them world. All we were looking for was a place were there was no them.”
Think of zombies and you think of George Romero. It’s impossible not to think or talk about one without the other. Go ahead try it. I dare ya. I double dog dare ya. Romero invented the movie zombie. Sure, there were zombie films long before Romero was born, but for all intents and purposes, he took them out of the voodoo ritual and gave them a life, or death, of their own. Most of the movie rules we now hold about zombies came from The Night Of The Living Dead and the films that would follow. We know that they sort of lumber about aimlessly. We know that they hunger for human flesh. We know that a bite from a zombie means you’ll be a zombie, too. We also know there’s only one way to kill, or is that rekill, a zombie. You’ve got to take out the brain. A shot to the head is best. Any kind of massive brain trauma will do in a pinch. It’s hard to believe that after over 40 years the man is still at it. But does he still have the right stuff.
The first three films in the series are beyond question classics in the truest sense of the word in the horror genre. The first film was shot on 16mm with a budget that could be called shoestring, if there had been any money available for such luxuries as shoestrings. Romero was the first to break out from that independent film into cult status and eventual stardom as a director. But ask about the films that have followed, and the fans tend not to be quite so rabid in their worship. Day Of The Dead and Diary Of The Dead appear to have lost something from the original films. Romero decided he had something to say, and if it meant using his zombie franchise to hit us over the head with his own particular social commentary, well, so be it. The films are preachy and lack the same kind of artistic flair that was true when the man was still hungry. He’s since moved from his industrial Pittsburgh roots to the Canadian suburbs, where it can be safely said he lives in more than modest comfort. The films are no longer labors of love created by a tight group of friends who came up together. CGI has replaced the incredibly pioneering work of Tom Savini. I’m afraid things haven’t been so rosy in dead land. All of that might just be about to change.
Survival Of The Dead is a first for Romero. It is the first of the films to actually be related to the one that came before. While actors have repeated in these films, a character had not done so, until now. The character of Sarge has returned from Diary Of The Dead. And lest you think this is just a recurring actor and not a recurring character, the film reminds us of the Winnebago incident in Diary. There Sarge was a bit of a bad guy. In Survival Of The Dead he becomes a hero. The film has also taken on some new genre elements. You could easily look at this film as if it were a Western. All of those elements are there. You have six-guns, horses, and even the Hatfields and the McCoys…
… Except here they’re called the Muldoons and the O’Flynns. The two families make up the total population of Plum Island off the coast of Delaware. The zombies have found their way to the isolated island, and it has caused a rift in the families caused by the preferred method of dealing with the zombies by the two patriarchs of the clans. Seamus Muldoon (Fitzpatrick) believes that the zombies should be locked up in the hopes that a cure will eventually be found. He’s also discovered that the dead tend to do the same kinds of things they did in life. So a zombie wife is just as good if you chain her in the kitchen where all good Muldoon women belong anyway. There they can continue to fix meals and do other household chores. Maybe Seamus won’t need a cure at all. Patrick O’Flynn (Welsh) believes the population of zombies should be killed as quickly as possible. He’s more than willing to swiftly take out the members of his own family that have turned. The feud has taken its toll and even some of O’Flynn’s clan are tired of the fighting. Daughter Jane (Munroe) makes a deal to save her father by agreeing that he be sent away from the island on a boat with his followers.
But, Patrick isn’t about to give up. He goes on the internet as Captain Courageous, trying to entice others to come to is camp and eventually retake the island. His podcast reaches the attention of Sarge (Van Sprang) and his military team. It’s no surprise that these guys are going to support O’Flynn’s solution, and they all return to Plum Island where it’s an all-out war between the clans with the zombies caught in the middle.
There’s plenty of zombie action and a ton of shots to the head. I do feel a bit nostalgic for the old-school methods. The CG splatter doesn’t quite live in the same space for me. Romero justifies the switch based on the idea that you can move much more quickly with CG effects added later. He rightly sites the cost of resetting gags and other problems with practical effects. But he fails to understand a point that folks like George Lucas haven’t quite got the hang of. When something becomes easier and cheaper, there is a tendency to overuse the same gag. That’s absolutely true here. There are so many headshots here that they really do lose the impact they once had. Are they convincing enough? Certainly, but give me less kills with a guy like Savini bringing up the rear, and I’d be happier.
The cast is actually quite convincing. The two patriarchs really do make the film. I buy their feud 100%. Some of the cast have quite inconsistent Irish accents. The worst is Kathleen Munroe, who plays both sisters Jane and Janet. One is a zombie, so there’s no need of an accent. She slips in and out of her accent with such rapidity that you have to wonder if it was an inside joke or something.
The final analysis puts this film way ahead of the two more recent affairs, but not quite up to snuff with the original trilogy. You’ll get all of the elements you came here for. There’s no real question there. It’s even quite fresh, which is a good thing for such a long-running franchise. Perhaps it’s really what, particularly, low budget filming has come to. I certainly enjoyed it. I was just left with this slight burning in my heart for the days of yore. Of course, maybe it was just heartburn.
Survival Of The Dead is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The film shows production values far and away in excess of its budget. Give Romero credit for making sure every dime ends up on the screen. For a standard-definition DVD, it does all I can ask of it. The black levels are more than fair with only slight artifact issues. It’s a dark film, for the most part, so that’s a huge deal-breaker there. The color is natural in the few daylight scenes. Sorry, the studio did not opt to allow us to review the Blu-ray, however. I suspect that would still be the way to go. At least this is a 2-disc set with much of the extras on another disc.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 is not very impressive. It might as well have been stereo. There are a few nice “bullets whizzing by” scenes, but there isn’t much there. There’s little sub going here, and most of the film falls into a soft, stuck-in-the-mids jam. Dialog is fine, however.
There is an Audio Commentary where the Romero is joined by many cast and crew members. You might not learn much here, but it is certainly an entertaining track. These guys are having a blast and laugh themselves silly quite a few times.
There are 2 discs. The first contains the film, commentary, and the following:
Introduction By George Romero: (1:24) It’s a playful piece that is short enough to be cool.
Time With George: (9:15) Romero defends his CG choices and explains why we haven’t seen the Living Dead universe brought together before now.
HDNet – A Look At Survival Of The Dead: (4:35) This is mostly a promo with a lot of the same footage from the Romero introduction.
Walking After Midnight: (1:16:05) Michael Fesher has been tagging along for the last couple of Romero films creating in-depth documentaries of the production. This one is very much in the playful style of his last film. You get an almost day-by-day look at the film. Plus you get plenty of informal views behind the scenes. This thing covers it all, and no Living Dead-Head should be caught alive having not seen it.
Sarge Short Film: (4:12) It’s mostly a Sarge monologue.
A Minute Of Your Time: (19:55) There are several very short pieces that range from mockumentary to clips of Romero’s appearances. They were likely webisode type things.
There are also Storyboard Comparisons and a tutorial on how to make your own zombie bite.
I’m an unashamed fan of Romero. He’s done wonders for the genre and independent filmmaking in general. I haven’t been all that thrilled with his work as of late, I haven’t been ready to abandon him just yet. I’d like to think that Survival Of The Dead is a little reward he’s put out there for those of us still on the bandwagon. I hope it’s a sign of better things to come. If you’ve given him up and left him for dead, at least rent the latest entry in the franchise, “and don’t forget to laugh”.