Posted on June 9, 2010 by Jason Thorson
Available at Amazon.com
In horror circles, one of the things the last decade will be remembered for is a zombie renaissance. The walking dead have been everywhere, from the big screen to books and from comics to games. The dead literally have been taking over the world. Well, insofar as cheap entertainment is concerned. As is always the case when a niche becomes a commodity, the genre becomes oversaturated.
When oversaturation occurs there’s a progression. First you see interesting twists on the concept such as the book, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies which superimposes the Jane Austen classic onto a zombie apocalypse. Examples such as these often rise above a field crowded by run-of-the-mill rehashes of the original idea. Eventually, even the creative stabs at the genre become desperate and uninspired and finally the flaming hot phenomenon reverts back to being just a niche. This last phase is where all things zombie have recently come to reside.
At seventy years old and forty-two years removed from when his seminal film, Night of the Living Dead (1968), first terrified popcorn munchers, George A. Romero has seen the birth, the death, and the re-animation of the horror subgenre synonymous with his name. On Friday, May 29th, Romero’s sixth chapter of the original walking dead opus, Survival of the Dead, opens in theatres and while it has its share of bright spots (bright red in many cases), it seems that even the master can’t escape the fate of the zombie story that’s been playing out over the last ten years.
Survival of the Dead takes place shortly after the events of Diary of the Dead (2007) and it’s linked by the character, Sarge “Nicotine” Crocket (Alan Van Sprang), whom we last saw pillaging supplies from Diary’s collection of college kids. Crocket and a handful of other mercenary soldiers decide their best tactic would be to head toward Plum Island off the coast of Delaware. When they arrive they soon find that the zombie plague spares no place. More perilously, they find themselves in the middle of a Hatfields-vs.-McCoys style battle, a small scale war over the fates of the zombies, no less.
Survival’s John Ford-inspired Western aesthetic is the foundation for the film’s premise. On one side of the Pussy Foot River resides the O’Flynn family lead by Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh). They systematically eliminate the living dead, no questions asked. On the other side of the river resides the Muldoon family lead by Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick). The Muldoons want to tame the living dead until a cure is found or they can be trained to crave something other than human flesh. This is an interesting conflict and it gets more convoluted throughout the movie as the zombie plague continues to infect the island’s inhabitants. The people have much more to fear from each other than they do the zombies and in this movie it’s the zombies whose survival is threatened.
The locations in Canada where Survival was filmed are gorgeous. Toronto, Ontario’s “Plum Island” farmlands and surrounding woodlands are rich with autumn colors and provide a serene and isolated environment for Romero to play with. This setting harkens back to the original film’s desolate farm and farmhouse and it adds the element of exposure in which there’s no place to hide from the living dead. This back drop is one of the film’s few strengths and Romero uses it well.
Romero has remained fiercely independent throughout his filmmaking career. Of his zombie movies, only Land of the Dead (2005) had any Hollywood involvement. For the most part his independence has served these zombie films positively. However, the first three films were made over the course of seventeen years. The last three films were made over a four year period and the recent lack of time and money manifests in Survival of the Dead in undesirable ways.
The element that suffers most is the visual effects. Survival is loaded with poorly executed CGI. The effects for these films used to be done practically. Tom Savini’s work on both Dawn and Day of the Dead defines what zombies look like and how their gut-ripping cannibalism goes down. These days the small budget drastically truncates the available time to film. Romero has had to rely on the expedience of CGI to achieve everything from minor effects, such as the myriad of brain splattering zombie head shots, to major effects, such as a scene in Survival during which Crocket finds several staked zombie heads that he shoots one by one. The problem Romero faces is twofold. Time is money, but quality CGI costs money too. And despite the series’ purported sociopolitical commentary, these zombie movies just don’t work nearly as well without believable gore and guts.
Over the course of his Dead movies Romero has purposely evolved the ways in which the zombie apocalypse affects the lives of his characters. During the first three films the plague grew in scale and the danger grew with it. In every scene this correlation resulted in palpable terror. The tone of Day of the Dead (1985) – the hopelessness, the claustrophobia, the paranoia – was the inevitable result of a plague that cannot be stopped and the detrimental effects that has on people, both physically and psychologically. Those zombies were horrifying, deadly, and exponentially increasing in number.
All these years later, Survival’s characters are used to zombies. The living dead are a potentially deadly inconvenience more than they are a source of fear. The survivors cope with their dead counterparts. This relationship is a conscious creative decision and it’s one that makes sense when analyzing the movies collectively. However, Survival of the Dead on its own is a horror movie that lacks horror and a story that lacks urgency. When the zombies aren’t an immediate threat, neither are the opposing factions of survivors. The tension has been removed from a movie that needs copious amounts of it to be effective.
Romero’s last three movies are a microcosm of arc zombies have fulfilled over the last decade. Land of the Dead cashed in during the apex of the renaissance with a slick and large scale conventional zombie movie, complete with studio backing which included a larger than usual budget. A couple years later, the much smaller Diary of the Dead twisted the concept by utilizing the cinéma vérité shooting style, a la The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, and Quarantine. It separated itself by exploring the role media plays in the modern world, particularly during a conflict. Finally, Survival of the Dead attempts to twist up the zombie film yet again, this time by splicing it with the Western Genre. Only now, it all feels too familiar – a plight suffered by the majority of current zombie offerings.
I’m a huge fan of the zombie subgenre and George Romero stands tall as its pioneer as well as an immensely important figure to the horror world at large. However, people tend to forget that his filmography includes a variety of unique and successful non-zombie movies, including The Crazies, Martin, and Bruiser. And speaking as the ultimate canary in the mine shaft, when even I’m tired of the living dead it may be time for Romero to flex his always-exciting and always-challenging storytelling muscle on some new material. For a little while at least, let the dead rest in peace.
2 out of 5 Flames
Review by Jason Thorson