Monday, May 17, 2010

Movie Review - George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead (2009)

So I finally got a chance to view Zombiemaster George A Romero's next installment of his "...of the Dead" series. Old GAR is the father of the modern zombie film and any zombie flick fan worth his weight in freshly torn flesh and brains would be remiss in not seeing any of his outings.

The thing is, I'm a big follower of horror forums and internet boards. Between Dread Central, Zombie Squad,, and the other dozen or so sites I check every day -- a common refrain has been that old George has lost his mojo. There are some that would argue that he hasn't made a good film since Dawn of the Dead. Denizens of the horror world have even gone so far as to say that his social commentary trope has long since worn out its welcome and that his 1960's radicalism has given way to cliche and triteness.

The argument is that others are doing better zombie movies than George and that he's lost his relevance.

I resisted this. Despite what the fan boys say, I always felt that Day of the Dead was a movie equal to Dawn of the Dead. Ad, in his more recent films, his social commentary has taken a back seat to better production quality and better budgeting. Some would point to this and say, "See! Old George has started suckling at the teat of the big studios! He is a sellout like we said!"

But I resisted the argument because of the simple fact that George was THE man.

Thing is, I'm starting to come around to the fact that George may not have it anymore.

Survival of the Dead is a perfect example of why people say what they say about Romero. It's hard to look the other way when you have a zombie movie where the zombies are secondary to the story. George was once the best at what he does... but when you get shown how to do a zombie movie by a couple of Brits (Danny Boyle in 28 Days Later and Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright in Shawn of the Dead)- when you fucking invented the genre - you might be losing your touch.

Survival of the Dead starts out promising enough.

It introduces us to Sarge (Alan Van Sprang, who's appeared in 3 of the last Romero ...of the Dead films, believe it or not). Sarge's actual character is a character who we've seen before. He was on screen for 30 or so seconds in Diary of the Dead. This was a nice tie in to Romero's previous film and gave the fan boy in me a nice thrill. I've always loved the idea of connecting Romero's films. How cool would it be to have Riley Denbo make an appearance in this film, or have the main characters have an interaction with Peter and Roger while at a dock in Pittsburgh. This connectivity is something that Romero's universe has always lacked, and has been a well of untapped potential. In this case, it was an excellent tie in and this alone showed me that this movie had promise.

Add to that that this is the most well shot and filmed movies Romero's ever done. Despite George's directing, the DP of this film deserves a medal. The scenes were lush and filled with just the right touch of menace and lurking zombie goodness.

The story follows Sarge's group of ragtag soldier/deserters as they flee the onslaught of the zompacalypse. They pick up a young, hip kid who shows them a Youtube video directing survivors to Plum Island - an isolated island off the coast of Delaware.

They go to the dock where they are directed and meet Patrick O'Flynn (played with a Malcom McDowell-like intensity by Kenneth Walsh). O'Flynn is one of two feuding patriarchs from Plum Island who has been banished by the other patriarch - Seamus Muldoon. It goes without saying that both are very Irish and the brogues are in full effect.

O'Flynn believes that the zombie's should be put down, and Muldoon feels that they should be saved until they can be 'saved by God', or taught to eat something else. Muldoon gets the drop on O'Flynn and his men and so O'Flynn is exiled. He also manages to lose the support of his beautiful daughter, Janet(Kathleen Munroe). Sadly, her Irish accent seems to wander all over and disappear at times.

Anyway, there's retribution, the patriarchs square off, the zombies escape, the henchman get eaten... there's nothing we haven't seen before.

Truthfully - watching this movie reminded me very much of the 1958 Gregory Peck western, Big Country. In fact, if I didn't know any better, I'd say that that very movie was the basis for a large part of this film's plot. You've got two powerful men, neither willing to concede to the other or seek common ground. You've got the outsider trying to understand it, and you've got the daughter in the middle.

And - to further muddy the plot - I couldn't tell what secondary genre George was going for. We have a New England island with fisherman and the culture that that reflects... but the Muldoon clan all wear western gear, talk like cowboys, and shoot six shooters.

It is this lack of direction and confusion that was the greatest disappointment for old Doctor Zombie. Either you wanted lobstermen with Maine (or, in this case, Irish) accents, or you wanted a Western. Pick one, George. Please.

This was, in my opinion, the least satisfying of all of George's movies. The thing is, his last two films weren't the horrible messes most people thought they were. With subsequent watchings, I've grown to love Land of the Dead, and I think Diary of the Dead was a great concept and failed only in the disparity between the cinema verite execution and the polished production quality of a big studio editing lab.

Don't get me wrong, I liked the movie. It had some great zombie goodness (although not enough), but the CGI was overdone, and poorly. As I said before, the scenery was beautifully shot and the film quality was lush and mesmerizing. This was also the best acted of any of George's other movies. I suspect that there were others involved in the writing process besides George because it lacked some of the ham-handedness of some of his previous ...of the Dead scripts. There was none of the hackneyed, stereotypical "Aw shucks" lines like those of Charlie in Land, and the quality of the production made it feel like a better made movie. There were some great jump scares.

That said, it is still a Romero film. If you're a zombie fan, you must see it. But don't go into it expecting anything genre bending. George defined the genre, and he's loathe to change things. I get that. The thing is, with the advent of running zombies, the staggering, lunging-from-behind-a-corner zombies of Romero's era seem somehow tame. In fact, when Tom Savini directed NOTLD 1990, he was the first to point out that the slow zombies were really little, if any, threat. Even George has picked up on this and made the zombies seem like docile, easily handled children. They lack the viciousness and evil of Big Daddy from Land of the Dead, or the creepiness of Ridley from Diary.

I should add that the zombies themselves were unremarkable. In fact, they were - makeup-wise - not as good as previous movies either.

So - in the final analysis, George still puts together a good old fashioned zombie movie... but he's not reinventing the wheel here either. He came up with the fucking thing, so why should he be the one to change things, dammit!

If, like Doctor Zombie, you're a zombie film freak and you will not be able to eat, or sleep, or make sweet zombie love to your woman until you've seen all of George Romero's films... you'll get your grubby paws on a copy and make your own judgments. My opinion will carry little weight. And, I am enough of a fan to admit that maybe - after multiple viewings - the film may grow on me much like Land of the Dead did. And it's not a bad movie. I'd actually rank it over Diary of the Dead based on quality alone.

So, where's that leave us? I honestly have no idea. I've confused myself.

Oh, what the hell. It's a Romero film. Get it... buy your own copy.

Dr. Zombie will.

DOCTOR ZOMBIE'S RATING: 3 out of 5 Chomped Brains


Dave said...

Very nice write-up, although I would disagree with you on the threat posed by the classic slow and lumbering zombies.

It's not that they aren't scary anymore, it's that they're scary in a different way than the sprinters. There's this slow, creeping dread about them. At some point, they're just going to out number you/box you in/catch you unaware and you're boned.

Dr. Zombie said...

I hear you, Dave. Individually - they're easily walked around.

When they're starting to group up though, it's a different story.

That's when the shit's starting to get bad. Still, I'd rather face 15 staggering slow ones than two of those sprinting ones! : )

And I do love how Romero's always relied on the surprise attack zombie. When I mentioned jump scares, that's what I was talking about. Nobody does the lunging-zombie-from-the-darkened-doorway better than Romero. Nobody.

BTW - I've added you to my blogroll. Love your site, man!