With very little fanfare, George Romero‘s Survival of the Dead has arrived on UK DVD and BluRay. I assume the low-key release is down to the generally indifferent welcome for his last zombie movie, Diary of the Dead. As one of those disappointed with the last entry, I approached Survival warily.
Well, the good news is that it achieves its objectives a whole lot better than Diary. The hand-held gimmick is gone, and Romero gets a chance to show once more his compositional talent, with lots of images based on western iconography. The bad news is that it still doesn’t rank with the first four in the series.
The plot involves the National Guard deserter Sarge Crockett (well played by Alan Van Sprang), first seen in Diary, as he travels to an island off the coast of Delaware with his colleagues to try and find a safe refuge. Unfortunately he finds Plum Island’s humans split into two factions: the O’Flynns determined to finish off the dead once and for all, and the Muldoons who keep their deceased relatives chained up in case a cure is found. Right away, you’ll have spotted the big flaw in the movie: anybody who’s spent any time thinking about it would side with the O’Flynns. However Romero presents the two arguments as equally (in)valid, as his Big Metaphor this time involves people fighting for the sake of it. He does have the sense to make Patrick O’Flynn a more lovable character than his opponent, helped immensely by Kenneth Welsh, who stays just the right side of parody. In the other corner, Richard Fitzpatrick plays Seamus Muldoon as a grim-faced inflexible tyrant, and despite his best efforts he can’t make his character’s stance believable.
As always, the zombies are not the problem in Romero’s universe, but Survival goes badly wrong in providing the factions with credible reasons for fighting. On the odd occasion it seems that the Irish characters are meant to allude to the ‘Troubles’ but if so, it’s a serious and lazy misjudgement on Romero’s part, and is very surprising from the man who gave us carefully considered analyses of society in his first few zombie movies.
Another logical flaw – having laid down the ‘rules’ for the genre so well, Romero gives us the spectacle of zombies feeding on animals. It wouldn’t be so bad if the new movies were just irrelevant, but once he starts to contradict his own rules, Romero runs the risk of devaluing the earlier movies.
So, it’s a complete disaster, right? No, not in the way that Diary had me holding my head. It looks pretty good, the acting is solid, and there’s the odd logistical set-piece to please the fans. The score is OK when it sticks to action, but too often lapses into Fred Quimby-style comedy emphasis. On several occasions, a zombie will loom surprisingly into the frame accompanied by a musical sting, only to be dispatched in a wacky way by a handy implement. For trained soldiers, the central characters don’t half leave a lot of loose ends around waiting to bite them.
Survival of the Dead contains enough ideas to give you hope that Romero has it in him to produce another classic, but enough jarring moments to make you wish he’d go back to thinking about these things for a decade before filming them.
Finally, this is the first Romero DVD release I can recall which came without tons of extras. In fact, there’s nothing, unless you count chapter stops and a menu screen.