Film number 2 of the 4 Paul (my buddy on Mellow Gaming) got me for my birthday was George A Romero’s Survival of the Dead. Fun fact about this film: I have never heard anyone say anything good about it. Thanks Paul! I’ve only reviewed one other Romero Living Dead film on here, that being the excellent Day of the Dead. So here’s a quick rundown of my opinion on the other films… Night of the Living Dead is quintessential cinema, Dawn is one of my favourite zombie flicks of all time, Land is actually quite decent, Diary is fecking terrible. Let’s see if Survival of the Dead continues that spectacular drop in quality since Land of the Dead shall we?
Survival of the Dead follows a team of AWOL National Guardsmen, previously seen in Diary of the Dead… so not a good start there… who somehow get dragged into a Irish family dispute over zombie themed ideals on an Island off the coast of Philadelphia. I seriously have no idea how the two character sets really get linked. There’s an Irish guy who has one view about the zombies that gets exiled from the island, he starts chucking videos on the internet advertising he knows of a safe haven, the team of Guardsmen respond, get into a fire fight with and then join the Irish guy and then a soft of rural western happens. It’s all a bit odd.
The Guardsmen are led by Sargent Nicotine Crockett (Alan Van Sprang) who operate with a zero tolerance policy for failure and a need to loot anyone they come across. Except those polices are abandoned right after seeing them acted out for the first time. They’re joined by some young lad, known only as the Kid (Devon Bostick) who seems oddly good with guns and a bit cocky, two traits that go nowhere. Patrick O’Flynn (The somewhat ironically named Kenneth Welsh) is the leader of one group of Irish settlers from Plum Island who believes the zombies should all be put down. He’s bullheaded in his beliefs and clashes heads with Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) who seems to think some of the zombies can be of use as they occasionally display signs of being able to complete basic tasks. A plot thread that was brought up fairly prominently in Land of the Dead. He believes that if they can get the zombies to eat something other than humans they could live along side us.
This is all a very Romero-esque plot line to be fair. The thematic being about the shades of grey moral paths can take in extreme circumstances. The final few minutes of the film make it abundantly clear that no-one is right in the end. This causes a slight problem as it merely serves to twist the story we’ve been following all along to add a sting in the tale. If the story itself were better crafted this may have worked, but the film is so sloppy in its execution that none of this comes as a surprise. That said, the second half of the film is markedly better than the first half which is where the majority of the sloppy and confused moments play out. During the first half we jump around between scenarios with little connective tissue to the point where I had to stop to think if O’Flynn had actually sailed a small boat from Ireland to the US because there was little indication that he wasn’t actually in Ireland to begin with. It looked like Ireland. All the characters had thick Irish accents. Plus his first scenes come so out of nowhere that you’ll likely wonder if the film has just entirely switched location for shits and giggles.
The film makes an incredibly poor first impression by starting with a series of scenes featuring some remarkably cheap looking digital gore effects. I’m not the biggest fan of CGI for no reason and if there’s one aspect of a film that very rarely needs CGI work it is gore effects. Early on zombie has his head blasted off with the top of his skull landing on what’s left of his jaw. It is a beyond terrible composite made worse by the near flash animated looking lump of head meat landing in the last seconds. Later on there’s a lot more practical gore effects which look a thousand times better but you really can’t start a Romero zombie film with an effect that looks like that and expect to curry much favour with the fans. There’s also a scene early on where a load of zombie heads are stuck on poles and it is, as an eloquent person such as myself would say, green screen as fuck. They didn’t even bother fixing the gradient on the heads to match the photographed background. One of the worst composites I’ve seen since The Hills Have Eyes 2 remake had that random desert scene that was clearly shot later in a studio.
The latter section of the film plays out quite a lot like a western, which isn’t surprising as Romero sites The Big Country as an influence. Essentially the Guardsmen are there to clean up the town of its outlaws which means shoot-outs around barns must be had. This all feels a little like a fairly weak episode of the Walking Dead. I get the impression Romero’s intention was for this group of Guardsmen, along with The Kid to become a kid of A-Team that would appear in future films solving a town’s zombie based problems. As the later half does just get on with following the plot, and actually takes a few moments for character based scenes, it does become pretty watchable. I wouldn’t say you’ll find yourself rooting for any characters in particular, as they’re all woefully wafer thin, but you’ll at least find that events are moving along at a pace and what is being seen doesn’t feel entirely like a waste of time.
Still, this is a zombie film that focuses on a fake Irish family, having a family dispute because they’re Irish that all leads up to a gun fight at a barn. There’s random plot elements, such as O’Flynn’s daughter being a zombie but turns out that she’s a twin and the other one isn’t dead yet. One of the Guardsmen is lesbian woman called Tomboy (Athena Karkanis) who has a scene where she’s masturbating for whatever reason. Also, I found it amusing that there was a female military character called Tomboy in 2 films I’ve reviewed in a row. Sarge gradually becomes some sort of hero figure, so at least there was one actual character arc. Performances are universally bland with many characters just shouting things occasionally because they weren’t sure what tone the scene should have. There’s a sub-plot about a load of money in an armoured truck which is eventually becomes a thing that is mentioned as a reason for The Kid to leave, but of course he doesn’t.
Essentially the whole film feels like a series of ideas and scenes that are either not played out fully or are played out to an unsatisfactory conclusion. The film falls back on standard zombie movie tropes, such as a character gradually turning due to infection, that you’d think Romero would have gotten bored of repeating by now. The film is shot decently enough, quite nicely for a modern Romero feature actually, but there is a feeling of straight to DVD… or worse yet straight to sci-fi channel… production quality. Looks better than Osombie though. I guess that isn’t saying much. I can’t decide if this is worse than Diary of the Dead but it does come pretty close. That film was awful in every way. At least this film had some cool gore effects in the final act. Survival of the Dead isn’t as awful as I had always heard though. It has ideas and potential, it just fails to pull any of that off fully. Quite the shame really.