Last weekend, I finally managed to purchase and watch George A. Romero’s latest installment of shambling ex-lifers – Survival of the Dead. After the mess that was Diary of the Dead, I was extremely hesitant about picking this one up. Fortunately, Devin’s review of the film convinced me to give Romero’s Dead universe one more shot (another reason why Devin will be missed now that he has moved on). Plus, as a guy who still considers zombies to be his favourite movie monster (despite how overplayed they are and how much they’ve been ruined by lackluster attempts), I thought it was only fair to give this film a fair shake.
I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised.
One of the things that made Diary fail so badly for me was the fact the Romero latched on too tightly to the gimmick used for the film – the “amateur handi-cam” perspective. Though this gimmick works on occasion, like in Cloverfield, more often it ends up falling short. Unfortunately, Romero tries to let it carry the entire film, while the elements that usually make a great Romero zombie flick – character development and social commentary – suffer from lack of attention.
But Survival, on the other hand, is a return to form. I think Romero learned his lesson from his previous attempt and decided to go back to his roots. The result is a smaller, more intimate film that once again relies on character with a deeper message hidden under the plot. Not only that, but it appears that Romero literally decided to take elements from his first three films and mold them all together into a single entry. Seriously – you have the quiet, more isolated environs from Night being used in the form of a small island in Delaware. You have the small group of survivors looking for a place to survive from Dawn. And you have the slightly out-of-sorts military folk willing to consider themselves the law, as well as the differing opinions on whether the dead should be disposed of or rehabilitated from Day.
Now, under any other guiding hand this may seem derivative and repetitive. But Romero manages to make all of these ingredients that we’ve already seen work in something that doesn’t automatically look like a retread. Then he adds in a dash of humour to offset the grim a little. It appears that old George took a cue from Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright when he started working on this film and it shows. Granted, it seems more like Romero took the idea of putting humour into the film from Pegg and Wright, but decided to pay more homage to Bugs Bunny than anything else. Still, it somehow works. The gags are obvious when onscreen, but they never seemed to detract from everything else that was going on to me. Instead, what is in the final product is a rich and diverse flick with a simple message at its core and some decently-developed characters.
That’s not to say the film is perfect. I did have a couple small issues with Survival. Though practical effects are used for most of the film, there are a couple moments where CG is favoured. And it’s obvious. There’s a scene where our main characters stumble upon some other survivors who have decided to have some fun with the dead roaming the forests – decapitating them all and putting their still-animated head son pikes. Now, this would have been a simple trick to do with practical effects. Unfortunately, the CG that they went with instead looks like it belongs in some flash-animated short put on the net by a twelve year old with a disturbed imagination. Luckily, the CG in the film is used sparingly, so that it doesn’t detract from the film too much.
The other issue I had was the “twist” that happens about two-thirds of the way through the film. I don’t want to give anything away, but there is a “twist” in regards to one of the characters that made me groan out loud due to the fact that it was done using one of the most overused-to-the-point-of-being-its-own-joke cliches ever devised. But like the CG issue, this plot device was also quick and small enough to be ignored once the movie moved past it.
Despite my minor quabbles, Survival of the Dead is a very enjoyable film. As the movie continued through its hour and a half running time, I frequently found myself feeling like I was watching one of the original three classics, except that this time it was playing out differently than I remembered. And that’s not a slight against the film, either. In fact, I would say that this movie is like putting on an old, favourite shirt that you still like to keep in the bottom drawer – except this time it looks and feels brand new.