After Diary of the Dead I really thought George Romero
was over. Some filmmakers can work well into their most golden of years
and still turn out terrific work, but many others fall off after a
certain point. The fifth Dead film had me convinced that
Romero was in the second camp, an old guy who just couldn’t quite get
it together any more. Besides being plain old bad, Diary looked cheap and shoddy; it was sub-direct to DVD in my eyes.



So I approached Survival of the Dead, the maestro’s
latest zombie opus, with real trepidation. Look, I’ll always see a
Romero film. He’s earned that basic loyalty. And it’s not like Diary was
the first Romero film I didn’t like (although it seemed to be part of a
slide in his career that was making me nervous), it was just his first
zombie movie I flat out didn’t like. I had hopes, but I had maybe more
fears.



It turns out those fears were mostly unfounded. A truly solid film that looks like a movie, Survival of the Dead is, hands down, the best Dead film since Day. Sure, that sounds like faint praise, but read on.



The most important thing to keep in mind about Survival
is that this is a whole new zombie series. The Romero who made the
original trilogy isn’t the same Romero making movies today. That Romero
was an angry guy, this Romero seems tired and resigned. While Night through Day managed to find outrage at the horrors humans would visit upon themselves when they needed to come together, Survival treats it all as a foregone conclusion. And it approaches the inevitable breakdown of civility with a dark humor; Survival is the funniest Dead film, and most of the humor really works (and what doesn’t work tends to be corny as opposed to irritating).



The other important thing to know walking in to Survival is
that this film is a Western. And it’s not a Western in the John
Carpenter way, where the savvy filmgoer can find the tropes and mythos
of the Western in a modern tale. It’s a Western in the John Ford way,
and Romero has essentially picked up a Ford Western and dropped it
right in the middle of a modern zombie movie. I loved the way the film
was unabashedly a Western – characters ride on horses and have cowboy
hats and tell each other to throw down their iron. There’s a gunfight
at a corral! – but it’s certainly the kind of thing that might throw
modern audiences. Especially since the film is set in New England,
which really makes the Western aspects feel out of place (I’m assuming
it’s set in New England because Romero now shoots his films in
Toronto).



That New England setting is one of the problems that the film has, none
of which are crippling. The structure of the film is a little lopsided
– it begins with a really pointless (but not bad) prologue and then
spends too much time developing one group of characters (the military
stick-up men from Diary; this is Romero’s first direct sequel Dead film,
and I like the way that he spins off from the previous movie instead of
following the main survivors) and not enough developing another (the
cowboys, many of whom meet great gruesome ends that are undercut when
you realize you don’t know who they are) – but I found the journey
enjoyable enough that it didn’t bother me. That’s helped by the
colorful characters, many of whom feel slightly anachronistic, but
that’s part of the film’s charm. Yeah, a Hispanic guy who keeps saying
‘senor’ is fucking ridiculous in the modern day (and maybe potentially
offensive), but when you realize that the character is just a Western
archetype placed in the dress of a modern man, it all makes more sense.
Even the characters that seem most ‘modern’ are really just throwbacks
– the hero, played by Alan Van Sprang, seems to be a standard modern
cynical tough guy, but when you start to strip it back you realize that
he’s actually a very traditional gunslinger. The iPod-obsessed kid who
gets picked up along the way is another familiar Western character, the
up and coming gunslinger, and he and Sprang’s character even have a
friendly father/son rivalry. Even the modern transportation on display
– in this case an armored car with a million bucks stashed in a safe –
is just a souped up version of a stagecoach loaded with gold.



The film’s central conflict straddles the sides of the modern/classic
Western divide. Plum Island is the home to two families of wacky
brogued Irish immigrants (an immigrant group much more suited to the
1870s than the 2000s) that have feuded forever. But things get bloody
when the zombie apocalypse hits; one side wants to destroy all zombies
while the other wants to keep them, hoping for a cure, or at the very
least not wanting to disrespect their dead loved ones. It’s an
intriguing schism, one that echoes the opening scenes of Dawn of the Dead (Survival has
some minor thematic echoes to the original trilogy throughout. For
instance there’s a sequence with a group of rednecks who have put the
still-active heads of black zombies on stakes. The racial subtext, like
the racial subtext at the end of Night of the Living Dead,
goes unmentioned), and one that brings a spiritual aspect to the film
that has been missing in the previous five. The conflict is all about
how each side relates to death, and that’s based in faith. The
Muldoons, who corral the dead and chain them up, seem to be religious
(at least the clan’s patriarch is), while the opposing O’Flynns seem to
be agnostic at best. The title even refers to the themes, calling to
mind the concept of survival of bodily death, the idea that there’s
something more to us that continues after we die.



That’s an old man’s concern, of course. Romero is an old man, and he’s
approaching the concepts of death with a different mindset now than he
did in the 60s and 70s. He doesn’t skimp on the splatter here (although
like Diary there’s too many digital effects, unlike Diary not
every blood spurt looks pixellated. I don’t know if Romero could afford
better FX this time or if he just realized sometimes you have to get
wet on set), but most of the kills feel way more personal and while not
quite ‘emotional,’ at least meaningful. In fact, the body count seems
to be racked up by humans more than zombies in this film. The zombies
get to munch on folks at the end, but every name character who buys it
buys it at the hands of another human. And I liked many of these
characters, something that I haven’t felt about a character in a Dead film since Day. I liked Land, but everyone felt like meat for the grinder, and I mostly despised the useless morons in Diary. The characters in Survival are
charming, though, and often charming in quaint ways. Your mileage may
vary, though, especially depending on how much you enjoy the Western
feel of the film.



At the pre-screening Q&A Romero was especially proud of having
brought a new rule to the zombie genre. Of course all the rules of the
genre sprang from him, so if anybody gets to contribute new ones, he’s
the guy (you’ll have to watch the film to find out what the new rule
is. Caveat: I can’t guarantee no one else has thought of this). It’s
obvious that he’s not entirely satisfied with the genre as it is; once
again he returns to the concept of zombies learning, or at least
remembering their previous lives. He gets a touch outrageous with it in
this one – there’s a zombie who rides a horse – but it’s indicative of
the angle from which he approaches these movies. Romero’s not just
content to put them out there as lazy metaphors, he’s actually
interested in them on a deeper level. The best thing about Land was
the way that he approached them as a societal problem, and he does much
the same thing here. Zombies aren’t really a danger in the film,
they’re a nuisance. Characters roll their eyes when confronted with
zombies in Survival of the Dead. Romero’s thinking
through the implications of zombies, and he seems to have actually
adjusted his view of how we’d deal with this apocalypse. Survival takes place five weeks in and humanity’s hurting but actually doing modestly okay for themselves. The internet’s still up.



I walked out of Survival of the Dead jazzed. This isn’t a
perfect film. It’s not as good as any of the original trilogy. But it’s
fresh and it’s interesting and it’s well-made from the beginning to the
truly awesome final image. And it shows that even at his age, Romero
hasn’t lost it. And he’s not just treading water, churning out zombie
movies simply because people want him to churn out zombie movies. I
felt that Land in many ways was a film he made not
because he wanted to make it but because he could get the money to make
it. By fusing a zombie film onto a Western, Romero seems to have found
a way to make a zombie film he wants to make. You can feel it
in almost every scene – Romero is very present in the film. He’s not
phoning this in on any level.



Don’t expect Survival of the Dead to change your life.
It’s not even the best zombie movie of 2009. But it’s a damn good, damn
interesting, damn unique film from a filmmaker who isn’t resting on his
laurels but rather still earning our respect and loyalty.

8 out of 10