PLOT: Opening days after the zombie outbreak, George A. Romero’s SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD finds ‘Nicotine’ Crocket (Alan Van Sprang) and his gang of rogue soldiers continuing their renegade antics. Meanwhile on Plum Island, off the coast of Delaware, two feuding Irish clans (the O'Flynns and the Muldoons) disagree on what to do with their walking dead clansmen. When they all come together hell of the human and zombie variety breaks loose.
REVIEW: Abandoning most all deeply layered subtext, Romero has made his pulpiest, most on-the-nose zombie movie yet. The movie switches between zombie horror, Western drama and zany comedy with sometimes jarring effect. Treading ground he established very clearly early on in the DEAD series, Romero continues to drive the point home that mankind’s reaction to the zombie outbreak is as dangerous (if not more so) than the plague itself. What results is a thoroughly enjoyable zombie film filled with enough gooey effects to please horror fans and a decent plot with new characters in Romero’s zombie world.
The main issue driving the plot here is the inability of the O’Flynns and the Muldoons to agree on a way to deal with their dead-and-now-walking relatives. Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Walsh) is for all intents and purposes on the side of the audience – he wants to see them blown to squishy bits. Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) is the optimist and is convinced that a cure is on the way and their loved ones should be shackled until that time. O’Flynn is banished and sent to the mainland where he runs into a familiar face.
SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD marks the first time a DEAD series character has appeared in a subsequent film. You’ll likely remember Crocket as the renegade solider that had a run-in with the fleeing film crew in DIARY. Here, he joins O’Flynn in his return to Plum Island where chained zombies are pantomiming remembered bits of life (a la LAND) and the Muldoons are still hell-bent on preserving their ancestry. As with all Romero films this budding tension is the sparking point for an ending involving gruesome zombie mayhem.
The film is an interesting mash up of genres and works in whole more often than it doesn’t. It is respectfully directed (on RED One cameras) and its modest budget isn’t constantly apparent. The acting all around is exactly what it needs to be to be a mostly serious horror film with a standout performance by Kenneth Walsh (TWIN PEAKS) as Patrick O’Flynn. The non-horror elements of the plot hinge on the interestingness of the warring clan plot and the actors carry it well and the movie rarely drags in that regard. The zombie action is delightfully playful at times and sometimes downright gross. My hat is off to effects guru Francois Dagenais. Romero and his effects crew seem to have an endless well of undead destroying ideas.
There are a few things that do not entirely work. First, the score is forgettable and I wish for the immediately recognizable works of the original DEAD trilogy. Secondly, some of the comedic moments are jarring and borderline slapstick. A few of them work well and are real crowd pleasers; but others stand firmly on the groaner side of things. Finally (and this one is pretty big and I must remain vague) George has introduced a new “rule” into his zombie universe. I’m not going to ruin what that rule is, but it rests in a major plot point near the end of the film. The problem with it, though, is that it makes one wonder why the rule was never in effect in other branches of Romero’s universe. The new revelation is big enough that even with his intention of going back and starting from the beginning (starting with DIARY) and going to different places with his series, one can’t help but think this is too big of an introduction to not have impact on previous entries.
Looking past the above flaws, the movie is genuinely fun for the most part. This brings me to the hardest thing about reviewing this film. The overwhelming expectation and anticipation for this film is as an entry into a long standing series by a profoundly influential filmmaker. However, the film should be reviewed on its own merits. We have to trek through the landscape of the positives and negatives of SURVIAL OF THE DEAD and land on one score. So really, I’ve just negated the whole rule issue above. We can’t fault the film for violation of the creators own rules because, even though this is a series, each part of this series is a standalone film.
Going on that, the film is fun. It’s a good film but I question its replay ability. While the acting is strong enough to propel you through this adventure the first time, the lack of any deeper layers to the proceedings means the dramatic plot elements (the Western in this film) won’t play as well a second time around. Regardless of the director’s own creation of this entire universe, here he adds nothing new to it. The zombie action is very good and the movie deserves much credit for that. Finally, the comedy elements hit just a few too many wrong notes to say that the comic relief is worthy of adding any major dynamic. So, the film is a fun but ultimately forgettable mish-mash, comic book romp. It’s recommended for anyone of the genre. For fans of Romero in particular, though, satisfaction of another masterpiece is still out of reach.