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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Survival of the Dead (2010) review


Alan Van Sprang (Sarge), Kenneth Welsh (Patrick O'Flynn), Kathleen Munroe (Janet/Jane O'Flynn), Devon Bostwick (Boy), Richard Fitzpatrick (Seamus Muldoon), Athena Karkanis (Tomboy), Stefano Di Matteo (Francisco)

Directed by George A. Romero

The Short Version: Romero delivers an unusual revisionist western--THE BIG COUNTRY set amongst a zombie plague. All of Romero's zombie pictures are different with one factor that remains the same--the breakdown of society. Here, Romero has fun with the material and comes up with another interesting entry in his series of the living dead. This movie is recommended for those fans who can get over this not being DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978). Romero has yet to disappoint me, at least.

On Plum island, two families, the O'Flynn's and the Muldoon's have been involved in a feud for years which has now turned violent over the living dead and what should be done about them. The O'Flynn's want them permanently dead while the Muldoon's, unable to put a bullet in the head of their family members, wish to hold out for a cure. Patrick O'Flynn is surrounded during a skirmish and banished from the island. Seeking revenge, he sides with a renegade group of military men and uses them as a means to wipe out the Muldoon's and the flesh eating zombies residing on Plum Island.

Romero strikes again with another entry in his long running series of zombie epics that first shuffled on screen back in 1968 with the seminal NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. By this point in the series, the zombies have ceased being scary, settling for creepy instead. There are several darkly eerie sequences in what is essentially a zombie western with some playfully Grand Guinol gags thrown in to shake up the formula.

The mention of gags brings me to another point--the absolute merciless mud slinging and hate mongering this movie has had thrust upon it since its release. One thing is generally consistent from one review/opinion to the next--certain fans are all expecting either the Second Coming of George Romero, or the next DAWN OF THE DEAD from the man that changed the perception of zombies forever. Zombie cinema more or less reached its zenith with DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) and every thing since then has been compared to it rather than each film being viewed on its own merits.

These zombies aren't munching on what you think they are

But then horror buffs are some of the most fickle film fans out there. Even if Romero had continued to make a string of movies "just like DAWN", people would still complain that he was becoming stagnant reliving past glories as opposed to doing something different and original. Well when the man delivers something different (he initially didn't want to do another zombie picture after DAY OF THE DEAD), people are indignant towards his movies stating he should make something more like DAWN OF THE DEAD. The reality is that Romero was so good at making zombie movies, that when he attempted to do something outside the zombiesphere, fans didn't want it. Then when he returns to doing what self professed gorehounds were salivating for, "It wasn't as good as DAWN OF THE DEAD." This downpour of ridicule and indifference has been around for some time prior to the release of LAND OF THE DEAD in 2005.

There's been an incessant backlash ever since the release of DAY OF THE DEAD back in 1985. Despite being drastically altered from its original script, the movie turned out very well bolstered by the best make up and gore effects of Romero's entire canon. There was also a number of fascinating ideas that were explored in that film and have cropped up in the succeeding entries.

The domestication of the living dead as well as the dead taking up arms (both huge parts of DAY OF THE DEAD, the latter most noticeably in the original script) has been touched upon in different ways over the course of the last three films. In LAND, the zombies had progressed to the point where they were striking back against the oppressive state led by the Dennis Hopper character. This was an expansion of what Bub represented in DAY OF THE DEAD (1985); a character who, in the original script, was to have been what 'Big Daddy' became in LAND. In DIARY, individuals were faced with having to exterminate their loved ones. This has been touched upon occasionally in other movies, but here, it's disturbingly effective.

For SURVIVAL, the Muldoon's refuse to kill family members wishing instead to keep them chained up in the hopes that they will "come back", or be saved by some divine intervention. What's most interesting here is that the Muldoon patriarch does indeed kill his clan members if they prove to be disagreeable, or don't make any progress. His ultimate goal is to try and make the dead eat something other than the living. The sad irony of this is that Muldoon, built up as something of a villain, proves to be right, but no one waits around long enough to see it take place. The one individual who carries the news is shot down before the information can be delivered. The film ends with the human survivors heading off to find another utopia armed with their guns and 4 million dollars in cash.

The main characters are all nicely drawn with the Irish feudal leaders being the most rich and lively. The island setting and western film trappings offers a nice alternative to the typical zombie movie cliches. SURVIVAL does have some cliches (a character is infected and tries to hide it from his friends), but there's some choice new additions. We get a zombie on horseback and the long popular notion that zombies don't feast on animals is vanquished with this movie. The latter also provides a cruel moment of irony as those left alive are nowhere around to see Muldoon's theory become a reality. The feud between the two clans that led to their annihilation proved to be a needlessly bloody war that ended in vain.

One of the best images in the movie also echoes advertising materials for the iconic DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)

Which now brings us to the subtext, the social commentary inherent in all of Romero's flesh eater films. It's not as obvious in this movie, nor does it loom heavy over the picture like it does in some of the past productions. There is a subtle air of social breakdown that allows for the bigotry and racism to emerge. This is blatantly obvious during a sequence wherein a macabre display of African American severed heads (that are still very much "alive") are found adorning wooden stakes out in the woods. There's also the social breakdown of humanity that results in violent civil war instead of coming together in the face of life altering change; "We must protect what's ours" says Muldoon. Patrick O'Flynn mentions he and Seamus Muldoon have been feuding for decades, but now they're out for blood; one wants the dead to be buried, while the other wants to keep them around. The latter camp also touches on religion and its place in this downward spiraling dark time in mans history.

Whether it be the ramifications of the Vietnam War in an age of hysteria (NIGHT), American consumerism (DAWN), class conflict (DAY), those with money and those without (LAND), obsession with media, muddying of the truth (DIARY), Romero has consistently overlayed his flesh hungry shamblers onto topical issues of the day. His initial trilogy is disconnected from the last three films. The chronology here is that SURVIVAL takes place six days after DIARY OF THE DEAD (2008) and three years before LAND OF THE DEAD (2005). The character of Sarge is the joining thread having been featured in the last three pictures, but only as a main character in SURVIVAL.

Another aspect of Romero zombie movies fans look for are the zombies themselves and the havoc they cause. While there's plenty of gore to go around, the bulk of the gruesome shenanigans are perpetrated on the living dead as opposed to the other way around. Zombies are consistently shot in the brain pan, or put down in a variety of creatively cartoonish ways allowing Romero to cut loose with a different approach. This goes back to the gags mentioned above. I assume people are more forgiving of the Ragtime pie fight in DAWN OF THE DEAD than the sight of a zombie having his head obliterated after the nozzle of a fire extinguisher is placed in his mouth, or Sarge lighting a cigarette on a zombies burning head after being shot with a flare gun. Zombies were treated as cartoons in those earlier films, but that was then, this is now, right? Still, there's also a helping of that dreaded CGI on hand, but there's also a good amount of practical effects. Romero states in an interview that he'd love nothing more than to be able to work with Tom Savini again utilizing prosthetics and blood packs, but times have changed and time is a factor in getting your film done.

The movie does provide a great score and several potently creepy moments and several shoot outs that remind you that what you're watching is a revisionist western supplanted to the zombie genre. SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (2010) has proven to have been just as divisive as all of Romero's recent zombie offerings and it's doubtless his next two promised entries will be any less scoffed at. I for one hope he continues with this series and continues to take a fresh approach to the material. It's sad that Romero can't get financing to do anything other than what fans expect from him. But one thing is assured; no one has done more for the genre, or been nearly as subversive as George A. Romero.

This review is representative of the Magnolia Home Entertainment DVD


Franco Macabro said...

I found that aspect of the movie interesting, they keep the zombies chained in hopes of them "turning back" becoming one of them again...salvation? redemption? I see some religious undertones there as well, I mean the Muldoon's are a religious group of individuals.

I loved the themes on Survival, but you know, I wasnt completely impressed with it. I guess what was missing from it was that intesity and chaotic feel I got from Romero's other films. I guess Romero's attempt at comedy didnt really work for me. I always liked that "dead serious" tone of Romero's dead films.

My favorite of all Romero's Dead films is DAY OF THE DEAD, to me thats the best one of the bunch, the goriest, the one with the most zombies, and the best make up effects. It's also the most nightmarish (those dream sequences are so awesome) and dead serious in tone. I love those first few minutes in the opening of the film with the city streets lonely, ravaged by decaying zombies.

You are absolutely right on this one being treated like a Western, the stand off in the end, the shoot outs, the horse back riding, some of the characters even dress up like cowboys! Mainly the Muldoon's.

Great review!

venoms5 said...

Fran, I totally agree with you about DAY OF THE DEAD. I don't think the effects have been surpassed in that one. You brought up an interesting comparison in your review regarding political parties. I don't see it, but can relate somewhat with that and it is an interesting comparison. I think he was more profound with that in LAND OF THE DEAD regarding the rich vs. the poor.

Still, I thought SURVIVAL was a lot of fun. I just appreciate the fact that Romero is doing these movies with a fresh spin each time instead of the same old thing over and over again. For me, the zombies were more creepy here than scary as well as being more in the background than in past movies.

I can't say which is a favorite of mine of the original three. I like them all about equally. If I had to pick, I'd say DAWN since I've seen it a few more times than the others. I do wish Romero could have filmed DAY as it was in the original script. It was incredibly ambitious.

Thanks for stopping by, Fran. Your viewpoint is always welcome, my friend!

Franco Macabro said...

The one thing I have noticed with regards to how Romero handles zombies in Survival of the Dead is that the movie didnt feel so much like a horror movie.

The one thing I love about the first three DEAD movies is that the feel like a horror films, where as in films like SURVIVAL of the DEAD Romero treated the zombies with an almost casual way, I think he's dealt with zombies so much that he has almost forgotten that they are supposed to be horrifying or scary.

Like there are so many moments in DEAD, DAWN and DAY that are simply creepy or horrifying, augmenting the fact that these events are terrafying, while in SURVIVAL you kind of get the feeling that he treated the whole zombie threat kind of matter of factly, with people not even spooked by the zombies.

Though I get it, he was going for a comedic vibe, something different. I just miss that old Romero horror vibe, I need it back! Romero needs to bring back the horror into his movies.

Yeah, I read about Romero's original plans for Day. The whole bunker was supposed to be more militarized and bigger, I think Paul W. Anderson stole some of his ideas for Resident Evil 3, the whole way that the movie develops in its third half felt kind of like what Romero wanted for DAY. Im willing to be money that PW Anderson read that original script and decided to shoot something similar. In fact, he even has a BOB like zombie being domesticated and learning how to use a gun.

Still, I love how Day turned out, I love it exactly the way it is. Its so dreadful. And constantly bleak. Not a laugh in sight.

venoms5 said...

Just like his zombies progress from film to film, so has Romero progressed. I think the title of SURVIVAL is very apt in light of how the zombies are treated for the most part. They get the brunt of the violence.

I truly wish he got to direct his version of RESIDENT EVIL. That script was incredibly faithful to the video game. I thought DIARY came the closest to capturing that feel of paranoia of his original trilogy and also I can't grasp why people hate that one so much, either aside from the 'It's not DAWN' argument.

Jay Shatzer said...

Great Review! Like you said before, it's hard to find a positive view on this film.

People just have to remember that DAWN, though one of his best zombie films, will probably never have an equal and that's really OK.

Like Fran, my personal favorite of the series is Day of the Dead. In my opinion it's a perfect film from the epic beginning that showcases the zombie horde emerging from the depths of the ravaged city streets to the closing moments when Miguel unleashes the zombies upon the military complex. Romero plays everything as straight as an arrow and never softens the story to lighten the mood. Dark, dark film, and better for it.

Even though Day is my favorite, I've enjoyed all of Romero's zombie flicks and the reason I love them so much is because they all have a different feel to them and Romero continually keeps his concept of the zombie apocalypse, fresh and interesting.

Basically everyone has their favorites, but there's no need to look down on a movie simply because it doesn't compare to the one you love the most.

Personally a huge part of me wishes that he would have stuck with the Day of the Dead tone and given us handfuls of more dark and depressing zombie stories, but hey I'll take what I can get.

Frankly, I'm just glad that Romero's still giving us some zombie goodness no matter what shape or form it comes in. It's crazy to think after all of these years he's still cranking them out.

Again, great review!

Jay Shatzer said...

Oh.. and I really wish I could see what Romero's version of Resident Evil would have looked like.

venoms5 said...

Like any genre, it seems, it's only so long before there's nowhere else to go before you have to lighten things up a bit. The old Universal horror movies, the spaghetti westerns, kung fu movies, pretty much every genre began exploring a lighter, or comedic tone at some point.

I prefer the darker stories, but Romero is into his sixth zombie film at this point, so some low key comedy isn't unusual. Who knows, he may do a full on spoof at some point!

His RESIDENT EVIL was extremely faithful to the video game. Every creature was in it if I remember right.

I Like Horror Movies said...

While I wont deny loving Dawn, I was entirely unimpressed with this one without attempting to make any connections to the previous films. If you dont have the time to make a zombie movie with decent effects, sucks. Dont make a zombie movie. Cheap, lazy filmmaking cant be excused by lack of time. I was really hoping that this would be a new page for Romero that was different any unique, but man.. How did you manage to get by the weak acting and logical errors? What are the survivors really going to do with $4M? Buy a boat? George had the ideology right in the subtext of this film, but it was another missed opportunity in my book. Too much nonsense and not enough meat.

venoms5 said...

The world hadn't fallen totally apart yet, so I assume they took the 4 million just in case; just like the survivors took the cash from the bank in DAWN OF THE DEAD.

I didn't care for the CGI stuff, but everything else made up for it. I liked the whole western feel of the film. I also didn't have a problem with the acting. It was fine to me.

I still don't understand the whole backlash against DIARY OF THE DEAD. Again, far too many people are expecting the next DAWN OF THE DEAD and I don't see that happening.

There's an informative interview with Romero on the dvd where he addresses why he did the CGI stuff. There were just a few spots where it looked obvious that they had used some software to "enhance" the scene. Some of the blood squibs and the wide shot of the severed heads on the poles stood out to me. Everything else I thought looked good.

Romero brings something new to the table each time and that's good enough for me. Hopefully he'll carry on with the two he says he wants to make.

I Like Horror Movies said...

I guess considerign its placement before Land of the Dead, money could still have its place in the world? I'll see how this one fares after the second viewing, always willing to at least give them another shot.

I Like Horror Movies said...

I guess considerign its placement before Land of the Dead, money could still have its place in the world? I'll see how this one fares after the second viewing, always willing to at least give them another shot.

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