Reviewed by Gareth Jones
Directed by George A. Romero
Starring Alan Van Sprang, Kenneth Welsh, Kathleen Munroe, Richard Fitzpatrick
Distributed by Optimum Releasing
George A. Romero’s cinematic zombie career is a tale of two halves. The first half, featuring Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead, is almost universally lauded among horror fans; while the second, including Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead, has been punctuated with many a split opinion. His latest opus, Survival of the Dead, is likely to continue the trend set by said second half.
The plot follows a group of National Guard deserters led by “Sarge” Crockett (Alan Van Sprang) as they try to find somewhere safe amidst the early days of the zombie apocalypse. These characters form a cross-over with Diary of the Dead, having been seen as the folks who accost our protagonists in that movie aboard their Winnebago. Along their travels, they learn of “Captain Courageous” – a loud Irishman claiming to offer passage to Plum Island, an isolated safe haven from the plague of the undead. Without giving too much away, they do indeed make it to Plum – and walk right into the middle of a generations-old feud between two warring families, the O’Flynns and the Muldoons.
Now that the dead have risen, the latest issue for the families to argue over is whether the dead should truly stay dead. The O’Flynns believe that all walking corpses should be laid to rest, while the Muldoons want to keep them around lest a cure be found. In tried and true Romero fashion, man’s necessity for disagreement and violence eventually leads to the zombies gaining the upper hand.
Now, Survival of the Dead is a strange beast. There’s a lot of humour that runs through this movie, and on first viewing it was something I wasn’t prepared for. Be ready for zombie kill gags that are literally “gags”, almost reaching the levels of a cartoon, and one particularly Daffy Duck-esque black-face moment involving a hand grenade. As the movie progresses, however, the proceedings darken and we’re taken back to familiar Romero territory. In fact, by the end he has actually added to the canon – something that Diary never did.
It’s been mentioned quite a few times that Survival of the Dead could be looked at as a zombie Western, and this is entirely true. Visually, it gives more than a few nods to that genre with costuming, the surroundings, dialogue, and even blocking hearkening back to the days of the cowboy just as the characters constantly hearken to their own scarred histories, refusing to let go of past feuds with a level of vehemence that only the Irish can muster. One of the final shots in the film embodies this perfectly, falling as close to a truly evocative and artistic visual as Romero’s ever produced.
The cast for the most part are perfectly fine, though Van Sprang’s turn as Sarge adds to the oddball feel of the film. His character is like an outsider, like an everyday guy shoved into the film’s realm. This isn’t exactly negative, but he brings a strange quirkiness to the proceedings. Standing head and shoulders above the rest is Kenneth Walsh as patriarch Patrick O’Flynn. The man embodies the “lovable rogue” – you can’t help but agree with him. In fact, on first viewing he saved the film for me in a particular scene he shares with Van Sprang.
Another reason we all love Romero’s zombie flicks is the inevitable gore. Survival certainly isn’t a letdown, though since I just recently reviewed Arrow’s excellent Day of the Dead Blu-ray reissue (review here), it obviously found itself at a bit of a disadvantage. There are quite a few impressive gore gags throughout, but the CGI looks very out of place on a number of occasions. It works for a lot of the smaller requirements, but when exploding heads become a necessity, it stands out far too much. When things get physical, however, they get very icky indeed.
The main problem with Survival of the Dead is actually the score. It sounds cheap with far too many scenes punctuated with a plinky-plonky, almost comedic, timing. This even runs through some of the zombie attack scenes and works towards making the walking dead more of a joke than a threat. With a more serious score, the first viewing of Survival may have been much less jarring … and much more impressive.
Everything said, once the first viewing had finished, I found myself immediately playing the film again. Knowing what to expect, my appreciation grew exponentially. I blame recent over-exposure to the nihilism of Day for this, but don’t go into Survival expecting the same level of seriousness found in Romero’s earlier entries. This one is very much like O’Flynn himself – an odd and over-confident character; but once you get to know him, there’s a hell of a lot to like.
If you weren’t a fan of Diary of the Dead, rest assured that Romero is back on familiar footing and playing to his strengths with Survival. It certainly isn’t as strong as the first three flicks in this particular canon, but it hits a lot more than it misses.
The DVD presentation by Optimum Releasing is visually perfectly fine. Colours are solid, flesh tones natural, and everything else is as one would expect from a modern DVD release. The review check disc did have a MAJOR problem with audio, however. Playing through television sound, there were no noticeable issues. Via a home cinema receiver, both the 5.1 and 2.0 tracks suffered from a random, and extreme, fluctuation in volume – occasionally changing over a matter of seconds from exceptionally low and back to normal. Thinking it may have been my equipment acting up, I tested a number of DVDs and Blu-ray discs, but they were all fine. This made Survival impossible to watch with 5.1 enabled without constant monitoring of the volume level. Whether the final release will have this issue I cannot say.
Considering the fact almost all of Romero’s movies have been released with a healthy (and occasionally ridiculously large) number of special features, Survival of the Dead finds itself with a huge amount of…well…fuck all. Bare bones city here, folks.
3 1/2 out of 5
0 out of 5
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