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

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