Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Oh Hai George

As some of you might know, the ponytailed national (turned Canadian) treasure is responsible for my favorite film of all time, a little slice of zombie mayhem and mall madness known as Dawn of the Dead. Regarding the rest of his filmography, I can simply say it’s a mixed trick-or-treating pillow case from an economically challenged neighborhood, filled with some tasty, if cheaper store-brand candy, slick but tasteless Good ‘N Plenty, and a heavy percentage of frustrating Milk Duds.

To give a brief summary of my estimation of the Dead sextology, so you know where I’m coming from in reviewing Survival:
Night: Classic, brutal, groundbreaking and still effective. The modern horror movie.
Dawn: I hug it once a day, just so that it knows I still love everything about it.

Day: Though it's grown on me over the years, I still declare Day to be overrated and kind of obnoxious, filled with good ideas (Dr. Frankenstein), amazingly crafted zombies, and a batch of characters I would like to shoot myself
Land: Underrated, the kind of film that gets progressively better for me on repeat viewings. Once I got over my initial excitement-met-with-disappointment in the theaters, I’ve been able to watch this much more objectively to say it’s far more relevant and better made than I had initially thought

Diary: A mess, but not as embarrassing (in my estimation) as others make it out to be. I like the idea of going back to the start with a comparably low budget and believe it or not, I even like some of the themes. Unfortunately, Romero insists on molding said themes into a giant orb and bashing us over the head with it via a bland and awful narrator.
And thusly do we enter 2009’s Survival of the Dead, a continuation of sorts of Diary that mixes shambling “deadheads” with feuding Irish clans off the coast of Delaware (I’m serious). Let us begin.
Quick Plot: AWOL from the National Guard, Sarge (Diary cameo-er Alan Van Sprang) and a few of his cohorts decide to follow a suspicious ‘Net (yup, the same entity that robbed Sandra Bullock of her identity in 1995) advertisement to an island paradise off the coast of...Delaware (cue Wayne’s World clip of "Hi! I'm in...Delaware"). 
En route, the team picks up a moody, if efficient teenager and lands at the dock. Not surprisingly, they meet some opposition from both zombies and humans, in this case, Patrick O’Flynn, an exiled old man looking to send some trouble the way of his former home. I think. 

Anyway, a fairly interesting boat escape sends our gang on a ferry, O’Flynn hopping onboard to give proper directions to the oddly leprechaun-less island. Romero starts to have a little fun setting up the strange society fashioned by O’Flynn’s rival, Seamus Muldoon. Where O’Flynn had attempted to purge his land of all the undead, shooting any soul with gray skin, Muldoon sought to preserve all victims in their former state with the hopes that one day, some smart Frankensoul might discover a cure.
Such a conflict is interesting in itself, especially when we get a peek at chained zombie mailmen delivering some bills and undead farmers fruitlessly plowing the fields. Yes, it’s ridiculous for a rotting corpse to maintain enough tension in her body to ride a horse for three weeks (don’t those ankles give out, Mr. Romero?) but I honestly don’t mind a seasoned, somewhat bored filmmaker trying out new tricks with the genre he created.

Of course, ‘not minding’ the idea of experimentation doesn’t mean anything when it’s executed so poorly. Survival is a weirdly awful film, one that tries to be funny without telling any good jokes, then attempts to make a statement by forcing its who-cares narrator (another narrator? HAVE YOU LEARNED NOTHING FROM DIARY OF THE DEAD???) to deliver a lazy diatribe on What It All Means. The final image of Survival is interesting; it didn’t have to explain itself.

You can understand the uncomfortably picklish Catch-22 Mr. Romero has found himself in. For forty years, film fans have been crying for more zombie movies, but by most accounts, Romero ended that era with Day of the Dead. He found new ground with Land then, I imagine, realized he was out of gas once more. Rebooting the zombie myth with Diary made sense...it was just poorly done. So now, at the age of 70, everybody's favorite newly declared expat seems to say "Whatever. I like Westerns. They like zombies. Here's my compromise." The attitude is refreshing. The film is not.
By far, the worse thing about Survival is not necessarily its acting--none of which is particularly good, but hey: Romero’s always been more about presence than performance--but the ridiculous broad nature of its characters. It’s fine to have a diverse cast, but not when each is defined by their ‘thing.’ You know you’re in a bad low budget film, for example, not when there’s a lesbian character, but when said lesbian insists on telling you with every line of dialogue that she likes to have sex with women. Are all lesbians as horny as they come off in bad horror movies?

High Points
Considering the vast use of stereotypes to define virtually every character onscreen, I’ll give Romero minor credit for having a spunky Irish brunette that wasn't named, as most spunky Irish brunettes in film are, Kate. Also, it would have been so easy to add a leprechaun so you know...restraint.

At first, "Survival" of the Dead seems like an arbitrary word pulled from a dictionary to replace the already used times of day in the title. However, I will say that it actually fits the film and its storyline. So that's something.

Low Points
I don't want to hop on the boo-hoo-CGI train, especially since I think most of the Survival zombie kills looked fine. But did the first major headshot have to be more digitalized than something out of Left For Dead?


I understand that ever since Barbra whined her way through the farmhouse and silly Judy went up in flames, George Romero has attempted to atone for Night's not-too-bright-or-brave female characters. Still, aside from Gaylen Ross's Franny, has there ever been a realistic or likable woman to survive his dead films? Making your female tough doesn't make her real, a trend continued here with the ridiculous, bland, and aggressively butch (and obviously named) Tomboy, played by Athena Karkanis (Saw IV-VI).


Lessons Learned
With that, just in case you didn't know, this movie taught me that lesbians dig hot chicks

Handguns do indeed work after being submerged in water

People who grow up in Alabama will not in any way develop a trace of a deep Southern accent. Perhaps it's beaten out of you in the National Guard

Um. Zombies bite people. Just in case you forgot, despite living on an island with them for three months

Killing yourself is a one way ticket to hell

There is a magical Irish-filled isle off the coast of Delaware where all inhabitants dress like John Wayne or extras in the Oregon Trail

I so wanted to like, or at least not mind this film. Sigh. Maybe hybrid fans of cheesy Saturday morning Westerns and old school zombies will get the humor. I didn't. Then again, I do believe Romero, unlike someone more stuck in a bygone era of filmmaking like Argento, has a weird Cassandra-like power of making movies that look and feel better twenty years down the road. I do indeed cite Land (now 5 years old) as a prime example of a film that is simply stronger with so much time between its initial release. Perhaps Survival will follow?

So do I recommend the film? I can't tell you not to watch it:it's a Romero zombie movie for goodness sake. But be prepared to be baffled. Those who simply hate the idea of a childhood hero now slumming in a weird land of make believe may want to skip it. Better yet, if you were a Star Wars fan who considers the prequels to be dangerous to your health, then avoid Survival of the Dead. At the same time, you're a curious movie fan who needs to open Pandora's box. Maybe it won't be that bad. For you.



  1. Hated this film! My main gripe is that the characters were all douchebags.. Maybe Romero is trying to say that at the end of the day we indeed are all douchebags...
    I see the merit in his argument, but..tell us something we dont know George.

    I have to also agree with you on dawn of the dead, many times I catch myself in a grocery store or shopping mall, and watch how lifeless and plodding the people are. It really is a fantastic metaphor.

  2. Interesting take on the movie. I enjoyed this film, and felt that Romero was having some fun with the viewer's expectations. But to each his own.

  3. Tangerine, I know. That's actually my problem with DAY as well. I just hate every single character onscreen. Sure, in DAWN, Peter blatantly says "We're thieves and we're bad guys" but yet I love my thieves and bad guys. I was mildly sympathetic to the Irish lass, but then I discover there's two of them and why should I still care when I don't know who's who? Plus, I really didn't need a third act speech by O'Flynn about his poor parenting skills. What movie am I watching???

    Pax, I'll have to hunt down your review as I avoided most a few months back to steer clear of spoilers. I agree that I admire Romero's playfulness and how he tried to have some fun with his premise, but I just wish the fun spread to me in the audience. Sigh.

  4. I really dug this movie but I can understand most people not feeling the same way. The mix of Western tropes and Zombie action really worked for me. And I like that Romero is still, at 70 years old, a) still making movies and b) still stubbornly iconoclastic.

  5. Good point. For a 70 year old man, Romero can still do some pretty amazing things. And I totally do respect his free spirited style. I like what Survival wanted to do, but for me, it just never actually did it. Maybe if I were more of a Western fan, I'd have a little more appreciation for the film.

  6. I really enjoyed Survival of the Dead when I saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival, although I have not returned to it for a repeat viewing yet. I own the DVD though.

    While I agree that Romero's getting a bit heavy with the "What It All Means" exposition, I found Survival to be really fun -- almost outlandishly so, and I think that was the point. On the "Walking After Midnight" making-of documentary, doc-director Michael Felsher asks Romero how he would defend himself on some of the wilder suspension of belief (i.e. the ruralness of Plum island in modern times). Romero basically smirked and said he just wanted to make a fun Western with zombies, so that's what he did. And I did find it fun.

    Not you, mind, but many zombie fans are too hung up on realistic details. You know, the fans who get heavy into the survival aspect and "what if" zombie scenarios. I think a lot of them hate Survival because it skirts plausibility and there are more gags than serious zombie action. I get that the humour might not hit the mark with some or those who weren't expecting it, but I liked it.

  7. It does seem like George had a good time making the film, and I don't mind its goofy mood. Heck, I LIKE the Dawn pie fight! I guess my issue is it seems like George had more fun than I did. I liked the idea of some of the gags, but I my funny bone just didn't respond to any of them.

    Maybe it was the combo of the silly and serious. Had Survival been even more light-hearted or all-out comedic, then at least I'd know what he was going for. When he adds that dead weight narration again, it just feels like he's still trying to make An Important Movie. So then I'm left with a comedy that didn't make me laugh, a horror that was never scary, and a diatribe that just feels old.

    But again, considering my turn-around on Land of the Dead, I'm willing to concede that I may feel differently about this film in the future. Time shall tell...