Only one to go! Phil’s review of LAND OF THE DEAD won’t make it in on time for the end of February, but here’s his review of SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD. Romero’s last film to date, which makes zombie lover Phil sad.
It’s sad to watch a master’s fall from grace. There’s no other way to describe George Romero at this stage of his career. Now in his 70s, Romero has rebooted his Dead saga. starting on that first night (in much less compelling fashion) in DIARY OF THE DEAD. That film was to have a direct sequel, picking up at exactly the point where it left off. For whatever reason, Romero took a different tactic, drawing a character from that film, using him as a crossover and throwing him down in the middle of a Hatfields vs. McCoys storyline with Irish families off the coast of Maryland. DIARY’s sin was that it was boring, but SURVIVAL suffers a new sin, in that it’s a sloppy affair in which little ties together to make any sense.
Sarge “Nicotine” Crockett appeared briefly in DIARY, when he and his troops were holding up the kids in the RV at gunpoint for all their stuff. That would make him unlikable in my book, so Romero’s choice to make him one of SURVIVAL’s two protagonist is befuddling. He explains through a voiceover that the world has fallen apart (astute listeners will recognize a line stolen wholesale from Romero’s far superior DAWN OF THE DEAD). After an ugly scene at the barracks, Sarge and a few soldiers take off to search for a safe place.
That’s one storyline. In the film’s alternate storyline, Patrick O’Flynn and Seamus Muldoon have taken their family feud on Plum Island to new lows through the undead. O’Flynn is all for blowing off their heads, while Muldoon is collecting them with hope that there’s some sort of cure… for being dead. In a power play, Muldoon exiles O’Flynn from the island. Landing on the mainland, he sends out promises of an island paradise through an internet ad, which draws Sarge, his troops, and a punk kid add-on.
Along the way, Romero packs the film with a number of threads he never ties. For instance, when one character bites a zombie’s finger off, it seems to start turning him into a zombie, but Romero drops this neat new idea long before the climax. There’s also the concept that zombies might be interested in eating animals (which anybody who saw NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD back in ’68 already knows is true). But why is that going to stop them from eating us? And why is Plum Island off the coast of Maryland and inhabited solely by two Irish families, when in reality it’s the home of the Center for Disease Control off the North Fork of my own Long Island? Had Romero put more effort into writing a coherent script instead of making an homage to BIG COUNTRY, this could have been another Dead classic. Sadly, it’s a tangled mess.
Oddly, Romero claims there’s no real social commentary in the film, as he didn’t have anything topical to say. He’s wrong. It’s got a commentary. It’s just about a dozen years late. SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD is a statement on euthanasia vs. keeping a patient alive. Evoking memories of Dr. Jack Kervorkian, Muldoon symbolizes those who want to keep their braindead family members on life support, whilst O’Flynn represents the do not resuscitate end of things. Where DIARY OF THE DEAD was out of step with its audience, I need no other evidence to surmise that with SURVIVAL, Romero is out of step with the times.
He’s also out of step with his own catalogue. The decidedly anti-establishment Romero wrote DAY OF THE DEAD in 1985 and made the military heavies the bad guys. But here he casts Sarge and his band as protagonists. Talk about a turnaround. And then there are the CGI effects. The man who once gave Tom Savini opportunity to pull off some of the greatest makeup effects in horror challenges Savini on a DVD extra to create anything near the work his computer people can. Ponder that. Especially after you watch SURVIVAL. A scene that shows the fates of a group of young black men may have qualified for the worst filmed effect I’ve ever seen. That is, until fifteen minutes later in a scene that makes use of a fire extinguisher and googly eyes. I sincerely wonder if Romero thought he was making LOONEY TUNES OF THE DEAD. The master has clearly lost his touch, and perhaps it’s time he lay down the camera.
I was astonished that other than the poorly executed effect scene, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD has no black characters. Romero was always a proponent of black actors, and portrayed them in positive light, often as the heroes. With a Dead history that includes fine performances by Duane Jones, Ken Foree and Eugene Clark, their absence here is an absolute shame.
I have this terrible feeling that LAND OF THE DEAD will be the last great film that George A. Romero will ever make. It’s sad to watch a master’s fall from grace, but with DIARY and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, and I’ll toss in his DEADTIME STORIES productions, Romero has strayed far from the glories of Dead films past. Perhaps it’s best to leave the dead to their final rest.