Survival of the Dead
Like his zombies, Romero needs to eat, and since audiences won’t see anything else that he makes, here we are in 2010 on the release of Romero’s third zombie movie in five years. Diary of the Dead, with its handheld camera and serious tone, split viewers much like the divide between life and death. It’s not surprising, then, that Romero worked that into his newest, Survival of the Dead, optioning for a safer, more mainstream visual sheen, but exploring the line between opposites. Can the dead learn to become the living again? Can the haters learn to love Romero once more? Or is this one just another one for the fire? Time to dig through Romero’s most recent rigor mortis.
The first of Romero’s films to be connected story-wise to a previous picture, Survival of the Dead is a spin-off of sorts to Diary. Remember that scene where the guard comes into the filmmakers’ camper to assert a little authority before demanding the cameras be shut off? Well, this one keeps the shaky cameras off, but follows the paramilitary squad afterwards as they use their arsenal of artilary to try and fight their way to survival. Lead by Sarge Nicotine Crocket (Alan Van Sprang, looking like he could be a part of the Day of the Dead cast) the group try to find a secluded area where they can start life anew without the constant threat of zombie attack. One of the stragglers they pick up offers such a promise – on his mobile phone is a short advertisement from a one Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick, looking like George Carlin in the Bill & Ted movies) to an island out of Delaware. Could this be their salvation?
Well, not quite. The Irish Muldoon had actually since been driven off the island by a rival Irish family, the O’Flynns, led by, who else, Patty (Kenneth Welsh). Seamus is of the mentality that the undead needed to be laid to rest for good, leading a group to scour the land to ensure anything that has risen gets a prompt bullet to the head. Patrick, on the other hand, has the philosophy that the dead should be preserved and protected in the off hope that one day they will be able to find a cure or potentially evolve the zombies to live once again. After a heated conflict in a family home where the parents were hiding their two infected children, Seamus lost the fight and was sent away leaving his twin daughters Jane/t (both played by Kathleen Munroe) behind. When the paramilitary group finally run into Seamus before the island, Seamus ends up staging a siege to try and make out with their money and artillery.
The military and the Muldoon eventually join forces, and they’ll have more to fight than just zombies when they make it to the island and the O’Flynns try and fight back. Old rivalries never die, it seems, but the O’Flynns cling to the hope that perhaps zombies will one day foster a liking for other forms of meat, like horse or cattle. Of course, in Romero’s continuing vision of the undead, any progress seems moot as selfish politics or wartime ethical breakdowns foil any attempts at progress. The tagline is right, “Survival isn’t just for the living”, but the dead prove also to be the least of mankind’s worries.
Romero has never been one for subtlety. His movies, particularly the zombie ones, have always worn a pretty pointed political message on their sleeve. Whether it’s attacking communist sameness in Night of the Living Dead, ME generation consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, or military aggression in the age of the Cold War in Day of the Dead, he always had a blunt point and never ceased to hammer it home. In those films, though, the message was topical and fresh enough that regardless of the sensitivity of the delivery, it was still a message that resonated. Even Diary of the Dead offered some impactful rhetoric on fame and belonging in a generation driven by internet interconnectivity. Survival of the Dead, though, is a curious regression in exploring civil, family conflict clearly inspired by the Black Donnellys over a century prior. Are there really communities in Delaware today that run around in lynch mobs and all speak in thick Irish accents? I thought the Amish stereotype in Diary was out of place, but indeed here almost the entire film seems out of place. The central family conflict is altogether quaint, and worse yet is the obtuse lumping of metaphors, giving each family a different philosophical stance on life and death. Romero’s best insight in the film, the idea that perhaps the dead can be trained not to be human (like in Day of the Dead), but instead to change their type of predation to an alternate food source, gets, erm, buried, amidst a silly and cliché olden time conflict.
Romero lazily also tries to expand the families into figureheads for America and, well, any other country with a conflicting opinion, but a couple sentences and a final loaded shot don’t really make up for the ham-fisted delivery throughout the rest of the film. As far as I know, neither family conflict nor the type of us-versus-them Cold War-era country conflict really applies today. Perhaps a better film would have made metaphor out of America’s need to play peacekeeper everywhere or something more fit to the ensuing and unending Afghani mandate.
It’s not just the 1800s-era Irish families that seem out of date, either, but Romero’s military doesn’t look to be any different than the one he showcased in Day of the Dead. Did we really need another film that demonstrated that the armed forces could be crass, brutish hotheads? This time Romero gives us a tough lesbian of the Michelle Rodriguez-type, but like in the way he lumped blacks into a Social Class Message of Diary, he makes her stand out rather than blend in like he did people of difference in his other, more progressive movies.
What’s more devastating than just Romero’s outdated message and clunky story mechanics is sadly the lack of any professional auteur stamp. Remove Romero’s name from the title and this has little to distinguish the film from any other direct to video zombie movie that’s come out in the last ten years. The tone is all over the place – trying to be funny at times, while at others going for scares, but all the while achieving neither. The acting is decent but overstated, and the gore is repetitive and of the standard CGI variety. There is a high body count, like what any zombie film these days can achieve, but gone are the clever or impactful deaths of Romero past, instead just an unending parade of skin being ripped out by zombies’ mouths or heads being shot, blasted or demolished by bullets. The off death that isn’t completely formula, whether it’s lighting a zombie on fire with a flare or popping his eyes out with fire extinguisher fluid, is ruined by some goofy, amateur CGI. Romero doubts Savini could have done better, but I, and I’m sure most horror fans out there, would beg to differ.
Other than Romero’s forced attempt at social commentary, Survival of the Dead is instead your basic hohum zombie movie. Romero still had things to say and a fresh way of saying them with Diary of the Dead, so it’s especially sad that he settles for mediocrity with this pandering misfire. If his two rumored sequels are going to be anything like this one, the Dead franchise does not deserve to survive.
Saying this looks better than Diary of the Dead isn’t really a compliment, since that film was made to look haphazard and shot on video. Survival of the Dead was also shot on video in a form, on the RED camera, but it’s got a short depth cinematic look like one would hope for with feature films. This 2.35:1 AVC encode looks pretty sharp. Romero was going for an old fashioned Hollywood look, but with the muted colors visible on this disc, I don’t think he quite achieves that. Edges look crisp but natural and detail in skin or clothing is very visible. Grain is minimal to non-existent, and overall the image looks pretty flattering. The only major caveat is the lacking contrast, which results in greyish looking blacks and an overall milky hue over all the scenes.
The sole audio track on this release is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, and the mix is quite layered. Romero apparently spent a lot of work supervising the foley work, and it shows, with a lot of crisp impact or ambient sound effects that really show the range of this audio track. Surrounds are used a decent amount, although there isn’t as much directionality left to right as there should be for even simple scenes like cars driving by or gunshots shooting across. Still, with the attention to detail in the sound effects, the moody score by Robert Carli and the crisp, clear dialogue, this is a very solid sounding mix.
No matter the quality of his most recent films, the best part about having Romero out and working in the business again is that it gives us a chance to see the behind-the-scenes process with one of the oldest living horror legends. Survival of the Dead is packed with a cavalcade of Romero footage with everyone from Fangoria’s Tony Timpone to Red Shirt Pictures’ Michael Felsher getting their chance to interview the great. The first main extra, the 75-minute epic, “Walking After Midnight” is a thorough chronicle of the entire production, detailing nearly every shooting day, including reshoots, as well as much of the film’s festival screenings. Felsher involves himself, as well as several other crew members and Romero fans in the piece to help convey the whimsy of working on a new Dead film. All the rainy days, the elaborate stunts and even the interludes like the Obama election are included, and the breadth is matched only by Felsher’s fine knack for storytelling that’s over and above the usual extra. Bookended with a frank, honest and still chuckling Romero, this feature-length documentary (Felsher’s second after his work on the Diary of the Dead DVD) proves that there’s more fun in watching a Romero film at work than watching the actual film.
What Felsher couldn’t fit in the documentary he peppers throughout the bulk of the remaining extras on this release. “Sarge” is a short three minute monologue that expands upon a scene from the finished film where Niccotine describes his plight against the zombies. It has a decent dropped camera scare at the end to make it stand on its own. There is also another twenty-minutes worth of interview footage with Romero recorded during Felsher’s visit to Romero’s home entitled “Time with George”. Always affable and straight about how he sees things, Romero talks about where the state of the zombie film is these days, where he’d like to go, what he’d like to do in a perfect world and how he’s handling his life today. Considering how either angry (John Carpenter), stoic (Wes Craven) or pompous (David Cronenberg) our horror auteurs are today, it’s nice to see Romero and all this extra footage available that demonstrates his love for the fans and his movies.
Red Shirt Pictures also provide the footage for the 13-segment “A Minute of Your Time” featurette, with each approximate minute dealing with a different, unrelated aspect of the film. Whether it’s the Toronto International Film Festival screening or a boat diving stunt, these short little vignettes never overstay their welcome and offer a broad assortment of experiences throughout the making of the film. It doesn’t quite live up to its name, though, running closer to twenty-minutes than it does thirteen.
That’s it for the Red Shirt extras, but this disc is, as Frank Stallone would say, far from over. Romero has a goofy, shallow but certainly enjoyable introduction that can optionally be played before the film. This intro is also what serves as the start for the puffy HDNet EPK, “A Look at Survival of the Dead”. There are more interviews in that little featurette, but none are as telling as those found in the “Walking After Midnight” doc. Another not-so-essential extra is a storyboard comparison of the heads on stakes scene from earlier on in the film. Kind of a random sequence to highlight, isn’t it?
“How to Create Your Own Zombie Bite” is actually an edited down TV episode of Indie Mogul which shows viewers how to make their own film effects from scratch. This particular episode of course looks at zombie makeup, and provides an easy, accessible and humorous look at how to make a latex zombie bite. Romero even serves as a special guest here, and the piece entertainingly ends with a short film to help illustrate the worth of the effect. This is my first time with that series, but it’s one I’d definitely like to explore further. Great stuff.
Another excellent extra is Tony Timpone’s lengthy sit-down with Romero for Fangoria TV. Although Romero does indeed talk about a lot of the same things he did with Michael Felsher, Timpone goes a little further in really trying to figure out where Romero is heading in his future, whether it’s regarding his other two proposed zombie movies to the new ways he’s utilizing to distribute his movies. The best part is Romero’s explanation of why he moved to Canada and why, at the end of the day, he just wants to make movies, wherever they’ll have him.
If you haven’t had enough of Romero, then there’s more yet with a feature-length audio commentary with Romero and a supporting cast that includes Matt Birman, second unit director, Actor Kenneth Welsh, Executive Producer Peter Grunwald and Editor Michael Doherty. It starts off rocky with none of the participants defining what their role in the film is (are we really supposed to know Matt Birman directed the second unit?). The group is recorded live and together, and they have quite a bit of fun laughing and reacting to all the gore footage. Compared to Romero’s commentary on Diary, or any of his other movies, really, this one is thin in terms of content, probably due either to the frivolity of the film or the bigger group of participants. With a group that big, they seem to be more intent on making each other laugh rather than exploring the facts of the production or the themes of the film.
Lastly, the Blu-ray is burdened by a number of forced trailers that can be skipped one by one but cannot be bypassed entirely by hitting menu. Annoying. There’s a pretty disposable extra, also, in the menu structure. You’re given the choice on startup whether you side with the living or the dead, and basically all that does is determine what the menus will look like. Interesting, but ultimately superficial. Packaging-wise the Blu-ray has a nice lenticular cover that changes from rotting hand to rotting face depending on your perspective.
There are also BD Live features available, including a new commentary track with Uncle Creepy from Bloody Disgusting (who also had a cameo in the film as a zombie). Since these are never guaranteed to be permanent, they'll be mentioned here but never reviewed as part of the disc.
It was clear in Diary of the Dead that Romero really had something fresh to say. Survival of the Dead, not so much. This sixth Dead movie is a puzzling regression for Romero, which seems to draw influence from old Hollywood rather than the headlines that would usually inform his of-the-moment movies. Jokey, absurd, and most saddening of all irrelevant, Survival of the Dead looks less like the stamp of a master and more like one from his imitators. The audio and video quality are solid, and the extras, highlighted by Michael Felsher’s epic and engaging feature-length making-of, are better than the movie itself. If you love Romero, you’ll want to at least check this out, but if you’re just after a good zombie movie, you can pass on this tepid clash of the families.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
After living in Delawhere? for 10+ years, it's still hard to imagine this movie being set here. Shame because I wanted to give this so much more credit than it deserves and was vastly disappointed in it. It seemed like Uncle George just phoned it in...
So does everyone in Delaware still live in shacks, pig farm and talk with an Irish accent? I know they don't in Nova Scotia, where they filmed this.
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