Survival of the Dead

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January 16, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

I’ve always counted myself as a fan of George A. Romero’s output and not just a fair-weather one. His work over the last forty years has veered wildly from iconic brilliance to disappointingly mediocre genre fare. Still, on the latter count, it’s surely some defence that he’s the man who defined the genre. Although it seems a point of pride that the word is never uttered in his feature debut, Night of the Living Dead, there’s no doubting that Romero’s name is synonymous with one thing: zombies. His other work has followed different paths with often unusual results but it always comes back to visions of the shambling dead, preying on the living to attain fresh, gory food.

His debut set everything up, a masterpiece of low-budget but unmistakably assured cinema. The films that followed have each tried to carve their own niche. For many fans it’s Dawn of the Dead, with its improved special effects and playful jabs at consumer culture that remains the highpoint. For me, it has always been the ’80s sheen of Day of the Dead, a film that beautifully sums up that no matter what’s going on it’ll be our own kind that will destroy us. After a lengthy gap Romero returned, with CGI and post-September 11th comment in Land of the Dead. Plenty scorned its cartoonish aesthetic and its ham acting but I’ll still count it as one of the most interesting and certainly one of the most unashamedly entertaining political films of the last decade.

Moving quickly onward we were soon treated to Diary of the Dead. The best I can say about that film, aside from it not being actually bad, is that it held a huge amount of promise as a genuinely experimental zombie film. Unfortunately, in this instance at least, Romero is a traditionalist and the result was a distractingly linear, narrative-driven tale despite the central conceit that the footage we saw was caught on-the-fly by a band of students armed only with their video-cameras. So with all that being said, I like Romero’s work. I like it but I just can’t drum up anything positive to say about Survival of the Dead.

Army sergeant Nicotine Crockett (Alan Van Sprang) has left his unit along with a few loyal followers. They’re fed up with the incompetence of the larger institution as it tries to quell the recent ‘incident’ which has seen the dead rise up from their graves and try to devour the living. Crockett and crew now lay traps on the roads and work as highwaymen. One of their potential victims was the camper-van full of students we followed in Diary thus yielding a quick crossover between the two films. Those ones got away so Crockett’s still on the prowl. Moving along we’re taken to Plum Island, off the coast of Delaware, where two vicious patriarchs vie for supremacy. Their dispute has lasted for generations but the rising of the undead has steepened the odds. Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh) figures the only way to keep the island safe is to lobotomise every corpse with a hunting rifle whilst Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), fuelled by religion, believes the undead can be cured or at least tamed. It’s Muldoon who wins the first round as he successfully expels O’Flynn from the island. Back on the mainland the exiled O’Flynn hooks up with Crockett and together they launch a new offensive against the islanders.

The plot features various larger twists and turns, and a fairly extensive supporting cast, but none of that really matters in discussing the various merits of the project as a whole. Each of Romero’s ‘Dead’ films usually finds its structure through focus on a single major theme. Admittedly the basic narrative is always fundamentally the same – a small group of humans try to survive encroaching hoards of the undead – but within that basic frame there’s plenty of room for different ideas. Although it was largely retroactively fit, Night of the Living Dead seemed to speak of racism while Dawn managed the aforementioned consumerist barbs. Day was devoted to the fundamental mean-spiritedness of humans as they assemble, inevitably, into factions and it’s this point that seems to fuel Survival also. The core dramatic crux of the film is the ongoing feud between O’Flynn and Muldoon. They’ve been at each others’ throats since they were boys and animosity is all they’ve ever known for each other. This stunted relationship is what tears their community apart; much more so than the re-animating of the dead. Indeed, as the film quite deliberately hammers home, the only real influence walking corpses offer to the situation is that now the participants in such feuds can carry on a little longer after their madness has already killed them once.

The larger dialectic that Romero seems to be pointing towards, in as much as one can be sifted from the increasingly distracted storyline, is that between religious faith and more pragmatic action. Although the film’s own portrait of events doesn’t quite manage to convince, the apparent message is that either extreme shall prove ruinous. O’Flynn’s eagerness to gun down every infected man, woman and child on the island to maintain ‘purity’ makes him too many enemies and it’s Muldoon’s argument that wins over the majority; these people are sick, we don’t know that they can’t be cured and we ought to preserve them and seek alternative methods. The problem is that, to any rationally minded person (or perhaps just an audience familiar with the mechanics of zombie flicks), O’Flynn’s clearly right. It doesn’t help matters that in the end Muldoon is just a sadistic lunatic who cannot be redeemed or shaded in a more forgivable light by the clunky script. The film tries to find a balance, Crockett’s team providing a sort of intermediary perspective as they are not used to the levels of treachery that typify the locals, but such a noble median eludes it. The film isn’t simply unconvincing, it’s downright contradictory.

Inferior thematic sketches might not prove such a barrier to enjoyment if so much else in the film weren’t also severely stunted. There’s often been a vein of playfulness in the extreme violence Romero deploys in his films. In fact that mischievous glee is a large part of what makes Dawn of the Dead such an appealing film. In interviews and audio commentaries he’s often talked of how excited he or his oft-time cohort Tom Savini, who plays no part in this production, would get as they’d envision some newfangled way to dispatch a zombie and rig up the props necessary to bring it to fruition on screen. Unfortunately studio-dictated, increasingly homogenised production schedules have made computer-generated imagery the mainstay for Romero’s more recent forays. In Land of the Dead it didn’t seem too much of a distraction since a reasonable amount of makeup effects were also employed. As his effects budget dropped it seemed Romero was happy enough to just throw wilder ideas into the mix, losing sight of the need for a tactile quality required in order for the effects to work. The end results are zombie encounters that are so wildly silly and visually unappealing that they actually counteract any intrinsic sense of drama we might usually derive from tales of people battling for their lives.

Some of the deaths here are reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s gorefest Braindead1 but the problem is that their outright silliness doesn’t tie in at all well with the film’s larger schemes. Indeed the bulk of the violence here seems utterly at odds with accomplishing anything structurally while Romero seems so convinced that it’s why people are tuning in that he leaves little time for anything else. For those looking for gore then the film’s certainly loaded, at least from an uncritical perspective. The film hardly goes a few minutes before a gun battle erupts and a random troupe of zombies have their brains splattered all over the place. The problem is that due to the exceedingly poor special effects and the overexposure to such occurrences, the violence becomes tedious almost as soon as it begins. It doesn’t help matters that, lacking any convincing or useful characters, it’s impossible to be bothered when one of the living succumb to the dead either. As an exercise in violence Survival of the Dead succeeds in the basest conceivable manner and is, at all times, utterly bereft of even the vaguest sense of suspense or intrigue.

Finally we’re left with the crude dialogue and often excruciating character sketches. For those familiar with his work, with or without zombies, each of Romero’s films has usually foregrounded at least one character of specific ethnic descent to play a major role; African-Americans, Jamaicans and the Irish to name the most obvious. Though some might call his caricatures racist they seem built with a genuine, if misguided, affection. Romero might not be progressive even as his debut feature, perhaps inadvertently, managed such a trait but it’s also clear he’s no racist. His lovable stereotypes seem, if anything, more the result of a wish to try and re-capture the appeal of Ben, the strong-willed protagonist of Night of the Living Dead. The problem is that Ben’s skin colour was of no import to the script and Duane Jones played him like a regular American, which he was. Later self-conscious attempts to recreate such strong connections have failed specifically because Romero made their origin their defining characteristic and that origin was in itself false.

For the most part it’s not been a major problem in appreciating the director’s work. If story-teller Brother Blue’s role as Merlin in Knightriders holds shades of the ‘Magical Negro’2 ideal that typifies much of Hollywood’s ham-fisted depictions of African-Americans then it hardly felt out of tune within a film that was itself about filmmaking3. Meanwhile, as the names might have betrayed, Survival’s O’Flynn and Muldoon are lugubrious Irish stereotypes. To a degree they’re interesting stereotypes which even the Irish themselves have employed, a change from the usual drunken rogues. They are patriarchal and obsessive, particularly on the topic of land, but if that’s what you’re looking for then John B. Keane’s play The Field4 would surely be a better option. The real problem is that the entirety of their Irishness seems predicated on broad accents which leave the viewer unable to avoid the inevitable question, “why bother?”

Beyond the grating ethnic cut-outs there’s not a single likeable character to be found elsewhere. Crockett is supposed to be a bitter stoic but he’s generally just a clumsy vehicle for some of the film’s unconvincing musings. The other side of that coin is Kathleen Munroe playing O’Flynn’s twin daughters; two parts that don’t even add up to one decent role. She’s the sensitive one who pleads for humanity and eventually is destroyed by the hate of others… twice. Actually, I guess she gets destroyed four times now that I think about it. Elsewhere we have various henchmen presented in the usual, standardised shades and, who could forget, a doomed love affair which somehow manages to be even less convincing than the norm.

Plenty have complained that the general construction of zombie films is so worn out and clichéd that there seems no reason for anyone else to ever run the gauntlet again. Once upon a time Romero ably demonstrated why the tired tropes of the genre were not a problem; it was all about what was inserted between the lines while the films ran through the motions one more time. It yielded him five distinctly different films that were all concerned with the same thing. Four of them could be counted as successes. Alas entry number six has proved one iteration too many.

For fans of Romero it seems increasingly unlikely that he’ll ever make another film to match the quality of his earlier work. To a certain degree it’s little surprise because part of what made his early work so entertaining, so exuberant, was the joy he himself obviously took in getting everything together. To varying degrees his early films, the original Dead trilogy, Martin and, perhaps most of all, Knightriders, were all born out of a close-knit companionship between he and a select few others. Like the travelling band of ‘knights’ in that film, Romero and co. knocked out a couple of great films because they loved being in the business of making films. It seems like it took Romero about twenty-five years to realise he really was an accepted filmmaker and, when it dawned on him, he seemed to become more preoccupied with his position than with the travails of production.

With studio backing, and studio expectations, he found that he could rely on others to get everything working right and the improvisatory nature of his cinema vanished amidst the professionalism. Films like Monkey Shines and particularly the (admittedly somewhat self-reflexively) slick Bruiser only helped him to relax further. Romero has always been a fan of traditional storytelling but in the beginning he wasn’t a particularly traditional director; taking input from all and sundry as he and his crew, his companions, worked to make the most of their minuscule resources. Now it’s not the resources that are modest, although he’s hardly big league, but the films themselves. That’s a shame and the most we might hope is that Romero himself is having fun doing this work even if his audiences might find each new installment increasingly trying.

1 Or, for the US market, Dead Alive; released in a slightly shorter cut than its International counterpart which the director has since declared to be his preferred version. On the topic of Jackson we might say, if Romero needs to get away from zombies then Jackson badly needs to get back to them.

2 For those unfamiliar with the phrase:

3 Admittedly, as Romero recounts on the audio commentary provided with the U.S. DVD release of the film, a younger, less established Morgan Freeman disagreed and stormed out of the audition.

4 The play was adapted, quite successfully, for the silver screen in 1990 by Jim Sheridan.

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