Whatever else you might say about George Romero, it’s hard to accuse the guy of just repeating himself. After making his reputation as progenitor of the zombie movie in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead, a bleak, Vietnam-era American nightmare, he upped the ante in 1978 with the blatantly satirical Dawn of the Dead, a critique of consumer culture that shifted easily between slapstick farce and the grimmest of horror-movie imagery. His 1985 follow-up, Day of the Dead, was hobbled by budgetary problems, but it offered an ambitious and ultimately depressing perspective on the Reagan-era military-industrial complex.
Though rumors of a fourth dead movie circulated for many years — Romero’s working title was said to be Twilight of the Dead, though at least one wag suggested it could simply be called Lunch — by the turn of the century the Romero zombie project was starting to look like a closed trilogy. But hold on — one commercially successful remake of Dawn of the Dead later (by Zach Snyder, in 2004), and suddenly Romero was off and running on his own new Dead project, Land of the Dead. Working in a post-9/11 framework, Romero made explicit reference to the U.S war on terrorism and amplified some of the previous films’ commentary on classism. Age seemed to have softened him a bit as this film, especially when it came to the casting of a scenery-chewing Dennis Hopper as the film’s villain, was more broadly comic and less resolutely dour than ever before.
Romero tapped a youthful vibe by casting a bunch of 20somethings in Diary of the Dead, which used the gimmick of purported camcorder footage as commentary on a YouTube culture that the director doesn’t really understand, with some success. But now, following his 70th birthday, Romero seems ready to accept old-guy status. The premise for Survival of the Dead is an extravagant throwback — the new film pivots on a long-standing feud led by two families of Irish immigrants (!) living on an island off the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. during the zombie outbreak. On the one side is James O’Flynn (Julian Riching), leading a well-armed group of civilians who make it their business to go door to door, putting a bullet in the brains of the infected and the newly dead, no matter how piteous the cries for mercy of their loved ones. On the other is Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), whose clan opposes the killing of zombies, presumably hoping for a cure but also citing some vaguely religious objections to putting them down.
Romero has proven himself an admirer of allegories, but it’s hard to tell what, exactly, this anachronistic rivalry is meant to represent. On one level, it’s just a genre play, transforming what’s ostensibly a horror film by bringing in some conventions of the American western, including shotguns, dynamite, and livestock. On another, it dramatizes the tension between the secular pragmatism of the dedicated zombie-killer and the moral conviction of the zombie-huggers, who believe human life is fundamentally sacred, whether dead or undead. Could it be a partially coded reference to the violent anti-abortion crowd? But why those thick Irish brogues? Is Romero making sidelong reference to the history of Ireland, and the seemingly intractable conflicts there? In the film’s final, sardonic image, it’s clear that these caricatures are finally meant to stand in for any two pigheaded men, anywhere on the planet, with any size of army at their disposal. But the sheer flamboyance of Romero’s screenwriting decisions draw attention to themselves rather than building the kind of spookily credible alternate reality he once excelled at creating.
Romero doesn’t go into any real detail on the O’Flynns and the Muldoons, opting instead to tell the story largely from the perspective of a group of renegade National Guard soldiers (holdovers from Diary of the Dead) who, while scavenging the American countryside for loot and provisions (they’re driving around in an armored truck loaded with presumably worthless cash), stumble across an online video posted by O’Flynn, who’s been banished from the island after a coup by Muldoon. With their help, O’Flynn manages to get back to the island for a presumably final showdown with his rivals. Amusingly, the soldiers are derived from cliched stock as surely as the good ol’ Irish boys on Plum Island — it’s just that these cliches come from a completely different type of movie. The group’s ostensible leader is Crocket (Alan Van Sprang), but honestly nobody on that team makes much of an expression except Tomboy (Athena Karkanis), a tough lesbian who’s introduced in a shot that has her leaning back, hand down her pants, vigorously pleasuring herself. (Guess the codger still has a little of that joie de vivre.)
Thematically, Romero continues to advance some ideas about the development of zombie brains, and the new wrinkles here include a blank-eyed dead woman on horseback and a campaign to train captive zombies to feast on animal flesh instead of human meat. The ensuing low-budget carnage is a little too plainly lit, and too reliant on computer-generated blood and gristle in lieu of the more visceral props and prosthetics of old-school horror. It plays like TV. As a result, Survival of the Dead never raises much in the way of gooseflesh, and anyway Romero’s taking an ever more jokey, even cartoonish, attitude toward the walking dead these days. (At one point O’Flynn nails a zombie in the forehead with a sausage fork. At another, someone lights a cigarette on the flames from a burning zombie head.) That’s Romero’s right as an old guy — the feeling you get from watching Survival of the Dead is that it’s made by a mellower George Romero, a man more at peace with himself and, finally, the upside-down nature of the world he lives in. Big-time Romero-zombie heads will get something out of it, but it’s easily the least of the director’s six living dead films. This one’s really for fans only.