Trust me, true believers. I was about ready to throw in the towel. George A. Romero, for my money, is the most important figure in horror films ever. Is that statement too big for you? Does it frighten you? Can you debate this claim? Probably, but I’m not going to give you the chance because I need this crazy-ass claim to illustrate my point. So sit tight and keep reading.
See. A lot of horror fans point back to one movie; that one particular title where they went from casual rentals on a Friday night to a full fledged and very morbid hobby. For me, it was Day of the Dead. Not Dawn of the Dead like many others claim, not Night of the Living Dead in spite of my claims that its the perfect horror movie. Day of the motherfucking Dead, yo. The talky one. The one nobody seems to like. Why? I have my reasons, mostly having to do with awesome special effects and Joe Pilato. I hold Romero in high regard. Night of the Living Dead was the flashpoint for a whole new generation of horror filmmakers and it changed the rules forever. It marked the official end of the silver age as we moved into the modern age of horror. It changed everything. So when George finally came back around to zombies with Land of the Dead, imagine my confusion. It was like I was in a Folger’s ad.
“We’ve secretly replace Bryan’s favorite master of zombie horror with your run of the mill low-budget director. Let’s see if he notices.”
Oh, I noticed, you assholes! I noticed big time. I even fell for it a second time when George announced that he was retconning the whole damn thing and trying something new. Diary of the Dead was a harbinger of doom as far as I was concerned. In my humble opinion, Diary of the Dead was the penultimate nail in the coffin and forecasts for further Romero zombie horror were dire. Announcements of his next project, cleverly titled Of The Dead were not met with enthusiasm and solicitations for screeners were turned down because I wasn’t certain that I could watch my favorite horror director die and then twist in the wind. I’m kind of glad I came to my senses because Romero has managed to pull himself out of a career-end free fall.
Continuing the story from Diary of the Dead, the end has come in the form of a growing wave of the walking dead. The situation worsens daily. The military is losing control by the hour and desertion is a real problem. Our story is about an AWOL unit that hits the highways, hijacking supplies from other survivors. A violent encounter with some survivalists leaves the unit in the presence of a snarky teenager who also happens to be pretty good with a gun. He has a plan and takes them to Slaughter Beach where an internet video featuring a crusty old Irish guy promises an escape to an island where the zombies aren’t a problem. This is, of course, a lure to steal their gear, but the soldiers get the upper hand and they, along with the crusty Irish guy, return to the island where, it turns out, his family has been feuding with another family over what to do with the zombies there. Flesh is eaten and lots of zombies get shot in the head.
Survival of the Dead has its fair share of problems but I’m happy to report that this is a nice a recovery from Diary of the Dead (Review), a movie I was more disappointed by than disgusted. Romero’s current wave of zombie flicks lack the general air of menace that the classics had but it seems to be the point. In times past, Romero’s well-worn formula for social inspection by way of gory movies was something that was easy to spot and while Land and Diary both included these themes, Survival seems to be a bit more obscure and eschews the notion of social indictment in favor of supplying some cheap and bloody laughs. That is not to say that it’s not there, it’s just that Romero’s razor-sharp hand has dulled over the years and rather than deliver a subtle examination of our climate and times, he pounded us over the head with ideas of the new media and class warfare with his last two. Survival seems to be about how warring sides, right vs. left, red vs. blue, whatever, achieves nothing and the problem doesn’t go away when all you do is argue a set of talking points based on your particular values system.
Romero goes back to some old themes that I always felt like he never got to fully explore. Survival of the Dead revisits the Day of the Dead idea of training zombies to behave but this one strips it down from domesticating the zombies to simply diverting their appetites to something else. Like I said, though, it’s not all serious business. Some of the sillier carnage from Dawn is brought back into the fold, as well. It keeps the movie from taking itself too seriously which, in this case, would be fatal. Thankfully, it’s funny when it tries to be. On the downside, Survival features a ton of CGI gore. Technology hasn’t exactly caught up to meet or exceed the quality of actual practical special effects and in times past, arcs of blood or spatter found in these Romero zombie movies tends to defy gravity and stand out. It’s getting better, but a couple of gunshot wounds and the first zombie kill, though kind of funny, looks like a computer effect and that really drives me nuts. Thankfully, it’s not all computer gore. There’s a great deal of nastiness to found in actual ripping and tearing of practical special effects. Bites look great and they certainly don’t skimp on the innards. You’re also subjected to a barrage of crappy Irish accents.
What you wind up with in the end is a nice recovery for George Romero. It’s hardly a masterpiece but it’s the best movie he’s made in 20 years. None of the characters have the staying power of a Ben, Peter or Captain Rhodes and that can be a real problem when they’re finally bitten and it doesn’t really matter. Everything plays out like a western, though, and that’s a really interesting touch with what looks like flirtations with Kurosawa’s ultra-fun Yojimbo mold and an ending that bears a lot in common with The Seven Samurai. Honestly, I can’t tell if I’m reaching with those crazy-ass claims but they seem to be there. Fans of Romero and zombie fans in general have been waiting for this movie to happen for a while. It has its fair share of problems but it’s also a really good time and the techniques that Romero has been developing to make low-budget movies even cheaper to make are finally starting to gel.