George Romero’s ‘Survival of the Dead’ – dead on arrival

[The following review was written in May of 2010 for my previous blog ‘Hand Grenades and Olympic Flames’.]

The Night of the Living Dead films are unique in that they are explicitly political. George A. Romero injects his heavy-handed political commentary at every turn. You can enjoy a Dead film without accepting the social or political message, but you can’t ignore that there is one. Behind the blood and guts there is always some very pointed social commentary. Survival of the Dead, the sixth in the series, is no exception.

Survival of the Dead picks up where 2007’s Diary of the Dead left off; in other words, sort of a sequel of a sequel, within a greater series. Diary of the Dead ended with a very graphic scene of some rednecks blowing away a zombie’s face, but still keeping the brain intact (and the zombie alive). It was an indictment of the cruelty of man, and not a positive ending by any means. Survival of the Dead is very loosely a sequel to Diary of the Dead, in that in Diary of the Dead there were some National Guardsmen who robbed the student filmmaker protagonists of that film. Survival of the Dead is the story of what happened to the Guardsmen after Diary of the Dead. It’s not really a direct sequel but more of a spin-off. Not surprisingly, it offers up the same cynicism as Diary of the Dead.

Survival of the Dead (Ultimate Undead Edition)

Survival of the Dead (Ultimate Undead Edition)

In Survival of the Dead we are introduced to two Irish families who live on an island off of Delaware, the O’Flynns and the Muldoons. The two families have been feuding with each other for generations, and the feud has now come to a head. The O’Flynns believe in putting to rest the undead (who now number in the millions), whereas the Muldoons believe that the zombies can be rehabilitated or cured over time. At the beginning of the film the patriarch of the O’Flynns, Patrick (Kenneth Walsh), is driven off the island by the Muldoons. To add insult to injury, members of O’Flynn’s own clan decide to stay on the island and follow the leadership of the Muldoons.

There is another subplot with the National Guard that is a bit convoluted, but at some point the National Guardsmen cross paths with Patrick O’Flynn, who now lures survivors via Internet (in this apocalyptic future everyone has wireless broadband) to a dock on the mainland across from the island. There O’Flynn usually extorts his victims into paying him, before ferrying them over to the island, where the new island-dwellers annoy and complicate the lives of the Muldoons.

There is more to the confused plot than this, but the summary is that the Guardsmen end up on the island, and Patrick O’Flynn is leading them somewhat, although he really just wants revenge against the Muldoons, particularly their leader, Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick). Upon arrival to the island O’Flynn and the Guardsmen are equally horrified to find zombies chained and mindlessly repeating the same motions over and over (such as chopping wood). They proceed to shoot them all in the head.

Production still from 'Survival of the Dead' by George Romero.

Production still from ‘Survival of the Dead’

The Muldoons, meanwhile, are getting similarly frustrated with the zombies and have also taken to shooting them in the head. So there’s no real argument, although theoretically the Muldoons are more religious and caring in their treatment of the zombies. In actuality, though, both clans are corrupt and cruel in their own way.

I saw a lot of promise in the premise of George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead. Before seeing the film I thought (hoped) that this film would be somewhat an analysis of the current American political climate. I thought of the O’Flynns as Teapartiers: “we all need to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps,” “every man for himself”, “Live Free or Die” — I thought of the Muldoons as representative of Obama-esque Socialism: “It Takes A Village”, “Welfare State”…

Once the movie gets going it’s clear that both sides are equally corrupt, greedy and evil; politics has nothing to do with it. Which is fine, but we’ve seen this show before. 1985’s Day of the Dead, the grimmest of the Dead series, portrays just how low humanity can sink.

In that film rogue military figures basically imprison all survivors and create a dictatorship. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Joseph Pilato chillingly plays the role of Capt. Rhodes: sadistic, backward and power-hungry. The military men in Day of the Dead want nothing more than to rape the female lead and use the zombies for target practice. They are completely ignorant that the scientist (Dr. Ted Fisher) is making inroads into actually controlling the zombie phenomenon.

Day of the Dead featured brilliant special effects (courtesy of Tom Savini), strong acting, chilling music and a very believable and disturbing plotline. Day of the Dead foreshadowed 28 Days Later by nearly twenty years, yet it is many ways much more emotionally damaging than Danny Boyle‘s 2002 film. It is likewise superior to Survival of the Dead in nearly every way.

The Muldoons in Survival of the Dead believe that zombies can be trained to eat other types of flesh. One zombie in particular, Jane O’Flynn (daughter of patriarch Patrick), is adept at riding horses, even in the afterlife. She appears abnormally intelligent. The Muldoons try to lure her into eating her own horse (and not people), which she does in the end, thus validating the Muldoons’s supposed philosophy of caring and humanism.

However, this powerful secret is lost in the end. The National Guardsmen leave the island, unaware of the humanity-saving notion that zombies can live off of non-human flesh if they are trained to do so. The message of the film is that humans are incapable of good; regardless of intent we are selfish, corrupt, greedy and stubborn. We are more willing to die than we are to compromise with an enemy.

But, as said earlier, we’ve seen this all before, and to greater effect. There are so many holes in the plotline it’s hard to begin. First off, why is there an island off of Delaware where Irish people live and sound like they just got off the boat a few days ago? Why do the Muldoons believe that zombies can be rehabilitated, except just to spite the O’Flynns? Why is Jane O’Flynn able to ride a horse as a zombie, when all the other zombies lack any basic coordination?

Survival of the Dead offers horrendous Irish accents, laughable special effects, poor editing, awful acting, god-awful dialogue..It’s almost as if Romero is mocking the audience. Diary of the Dead was by no means his best work, but in comparison Survival of the Dead feels as if he’s giving the finger to fans and critics alike.

Night of the Living Dead captured the civil unrest and uncertainty of its time, and famously featured an African American as its hero. Dawn of the Dead criticized the consumer mall culture of the 1970’s. Day of the Dead ridiculed the military, but also called into question mankind’s goodness in general. Land of the Dead questioned the growing disparity between rich and poor (and famously predicted the global economic meltdown). Diary of the Dead explored the pervasiveness of technology and the Internet.

In the end, Survival of the Dead touches on no new ground. In its indecision, it is in many ways a mockery of Day of the Dead; yet Day of the Dead was unpleasant to watch because it was sincere and serious. Survival of the Dead touches on many previous themes of the Dead series, but in the end it presents no new ideas. It mocks its audience as opposed to engaging it. There are some clever zombie deaths in Survival of the Dead, but apart from that little regard to the story.

In some ways it seems as if Romero has lost any optimism. If every movie ends with everyone dying, or mankind stupidly throwing away its salvation, what is the point? Regardless, Survival of the Dead is a very weak, half-assed attempt at keeping the series going. Romero seems to have lost his compass, and Survival of the Dead comes off as merely a parody of his other films. I never thought I’d say it, but it appears Romero is out of ideas and it’s time to let the Dead finally rest in peace.




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