Survival of the Dead (Blu-ray / DVD)
Reviewed by MattFini
Starring Devon Bostick, Kathleen Munroe, Alan Van Sprang, Kenneth Welsh, Richard Fitzpatrick
Directed by George A. Romero
Distributed by Magnet Releasing
By now I’m sure most of our readers know that our own Uncle Creepy appears in George Romero’s Survival of the Dead which, undoubtedly, is why the task of reviewing this pedigree release fell into my lap. I can’t say I was absolutely plussed by the assignment at first considering that the series had concluded nicely with 2005’s Land of the Dead as far as my money went. I have never been a great admirer of Diary of the Dead, and my relationship with this most recent offering has been a tumultuous one at best.
While the series never had the comfort of steady continuity, one of the consistently interesting things was to see how progressively worse-off the zombie apocalypse became with each passing film. In Dawn humanity was trying desperately to hang on, but it was already too late. When Day lumbered around, mankind had already failed to sustain itself beyond scattershot pockets of survivors. The appropriately titled Land of the Dead featured a barren wasteland and a doomed encampment where humanity was all too quick to repeat its mistakes. There might not have been anyplace left to go after Land (how much worse could the world get, after all?), but rebooting his own franchise seemed like an odd and unconventional move for George Romero.
Sitting down to watch this Blu-ray marked my third viewing of Survival of the Dead, and it’s been an interesting road. Upon my first viewing I was appalled that this was the best Romero could offer. It felt cheap and lacked the things that made the previous films so memorable. After a lot of ranting and raving, I begrudgingly bought a ticket to catch it during its limited theatrical run, and the biggest surprise was that there were aspects that actually started to click for me. When the Blu-ray arrived in my mailbox, I wondered how things might work this time. Any Romero fan knows it takes more than one viewing to fully digest/appraise his work, and Survival is certainly no different.
True to Romero form, it improves on multiple viewings. That doesn’t excuse its shortcomings, but knowing they’re there enables the viewer to savor the film’s strengths, one of which in this case is the strong cast involved. Alan Van Sprang reprises his cameo in Diary of the Dead as a world-weary National Guardsman who leads a small band of followers in search of a life amidst the crumbling society. His ‘Sarge’ is vintage Romero: a cynical and hardened man, but one who hasn’t yet succumbed to the brutality of this new world. Kenneth Welsh is the colorful O’Flynn, a scheming survivalist whose long-running feud threatens more damage to the inhabitants of Plum Island than the titular Dead. Both of these actors bring strong personalities to roles that are accented by some signature classic Romero dialogue.
From the outset the film is hellbent on examining the human condition through Romero’s ever critical eye. The Internet remains a prevalent force in a fast-crumbling world while his humans would rather kill themselves over a trite conflict rather than work together to survive the onslaught. It’s a recurring theme amongst all his zombie flicks dating back to Night of the Living Dead, where everyone could’ve all survived had they just followed either Harry's or Ben's plan. There’s no shortage of satire or subtext, and the criticisms on conflict seem just as valid in today’s political/social climate as ever.
Survival’s critics love reiterating that George seems tired with his latest offerings, but that’s unfair. The movie’s too funny for it to be the product of someone whose heart simply isn’t in it anymore. If anything, it’s that Romero’s budgets have reverted back to the shoestrings he cut his teeth on. This guy was never a Hollywood player, but most of the films in the middle of his career were reasonably financed. Survival of the Dead never feels grandiose enough to completely embrace the desired Western motif, and that’s a real shame. To hear Romero describe his original vision as an all-out zombie Western would’ve been truly special. As it stands, we’ve got guys walking around in cowboy hats, a climactic shoot-out and even some horseback zombie action; but Survival never comfortably settles into the film it wanted to be. And that happens a lot with him (track down the original Day of the Dead script to see what might’ve been). Compromises are as common in the film industry as eighteen-hour days and early call times. I won’t knock this one for what might’ve been but will instead take it to task for a number of issues that, three viewings later, still cannot be overlooked.
Clocking in at 89 minutes, Survival moves like a bullet, and Romero gives his characters some time to develop and/or grow. But we’re a far cry from the classic moments in Dawn and Day in which Romero wasn’t afraid to bring the action to a grinding halt in order to give us a better sense of the people inhabiting his world. It’s not that I want to see him make those films again, but the fact that his previous works are rife with so many rich and great characters made me long for similar treatment here. Both Sarge and O’Flynn are some of the best characters George has written in a long while, and spending more time with them would’ve only strengthened the film’s core. Independent films don’t typically play to the multiplex audience so it’s odd to hear they’re so often constructed like such.
Maybe it’s the budgetary constraint that prevents a longer film. It certainly prevents Romero from staging a satisfying climax. CGI has become a genre mainstay despite being a continued sore spot with fans, and I’ll be the first to agree it often looks like shit. Romero makes a strong case for its necessity throughout the supplementary features here, and the end result is a mixed bag throughout Survival. There’s a particularly embarrassing scene early on involving zombie heads on pikes that doesn’t remotely work, but the film rebounds with some nifty gags involving flare guns and fire extinguishers. We’re a long way from Tom Savini’s unquestionably brilliant FX work in Day of the Dead (arguably the greatest FX showcase ever), but some of the CGI here can be fun if you let it work for you.
Much of the film revolves around the inevitable confrontation between the O’Flynn and Muldoon clans, and it’s where Survival of the Dead needed to bring its ‘A’ game. Sure there are a few nasty bits of practical FX work along the way, but the staging of the climax is just a bit clunky and unsatisfying. It’s supposed to be a big, emotionally charged gun battle between two warring clans – a solidification of the film’s driving theme of the banality of such conflicts – but it’s lacking the necessary resonance, instead feeling like a cheap, Syfy Pictures version of a Romero zombie flick.
In the end, though, there’s enough good happening throughout Survival of the Dead that it doesn’t quite deserve the flurry of negative reviews being leveled against it. It begins well enough, and the middle section (where our characters commandeer a ferryboat that has been overrun with zombies) is undeniably exciting. George Romero is still perfectly capable of writing a compelling film with strong characters – I just hope the next film he makes (whatever it may be) can find a little more funding to put into it.
Magnet obviously hasn’t taken the mixed reaction to Romero’s latest to heart as Survival of the Dead arrives on Blu-ray with fantastic audio/video and a terrific collection of extras to boot! The 2.35:1-framed transfer looks excellent with a largely crisp and detailed palette. Being shot digitally, there’s a bit of noise scattered throughout which may distract the most anal viewers, but this is an image true to its source. And the DTS HD Master Audio track complements the image very well. Surround speakers work constantly on delivering the film’s ambiance into your living room while dialogue levels are perfectly maintained through the right, left and center channels. If you’ve got the set-up, Magnet gives you a great opportunity to stage a theatrical-like exhibition since so few of us actually got to experience it on the big screen.
Then there are the extras, which are so bountiful that the disappointed Romero faithful may even consider a purchase. First up is the 76-minute production documentary titled Walking After Midnight. Directed by Red Shirt Pictures’ Michael Felsher, this is an expansive behind-the-scenes look at the creation of Survival of the Dead, which, frankly, explains a lot of my qualms with the film. Shot during the month of October in the Great White North, this shoot looked to be as challenging as the worst of them thanks to a barrage of brutally cold weather. And while we get to see Romero and Co. accepting some of the takes simply to get in out of the cold, there’s also plenty of enjoyable interviews with the cast and crew along the way. It’s as honest as it is entertaining, providing a vivid examination of Mr. Romero’s latest offering.
Next up is a solid, if unspectacular, commentary track with Romero, producers Peter Grunwald and Michael Doherty, and actors Kenneth Welsh and Matt Birman. Not the greatest conversation, but fans of the film may be more interested in hearing what these guys have to say. Also included is a delightfully goofy and good-natured film introduction with Romero, a compilation of 13 behind-the-scenes featurettes titled A Minute of Your Time (all good stuff) and a storyboard comparison of the unfortunate ‘zombie heads on pikes’ bit. There’s also a good little interview with Romero conducted by Fangoria’s Tony Timpone in which the director talks about possible future installments in the series and other goodies while a second interview with Romero covers much of the same territory. Rounding out this set are a short film called "Sarge", which is essentially an extended riff of Alan Van Sprang’s opening monologue, an HDNet glimpse of Survival of the Dead and a ten-minute short showcasing a low-budget way to create a convincing zombie bite.
But that’s not all. If you missed our story regarding the Blu-ray exclusive commentary track with our own Steve “Uncle Creepy” Barton and George Romero himself, then you’re going to want to go back to it because this track is well worth your time. Blu-ray owners are going to have to connect to the Internet and access the commentary from the disc’s “BD Live” Menu. Let it download and restart the disc. You’ll then have access to the commentary track from the “Setup” menu. And it’s a great listen. It shouldn’t surprise any of this site’s regular readers that Uncle Creepy knows his stuff when it comes to the horror genre, and we also know he’s one hell of an entertaining guy. He serves as a bit of a moderator at the beginning and gets Romero to open up on a number of different issues. Their dissection of the film is more interesting than the other commentary track, and Romero’s insight here is far more rewarding – no doubt in part because Steve asks some questions in the guise of a fan. This, along with the feature-length documentary, is the best extra in the set. Hilarious and enlightening, it’s like sitting down with some old friends and bullshitting about zombies for an hour and a half. No better way to pass the time.
It was a long road, but I have come around quite a bit on Survival of the Dead. It’s far from perfect and quite a shame that Romero couldn’t have had a bit more dough to work with, but there’s plenty to like here if you’re willing to overlook the shortcomings. The cast is good and there’s a nice sense of humor to the proceedings. Strap on yer six-shooter and pay a visit to Plum Island. Just make sure to pick a side. It’s in our nature after all.
(Single DVD and Disc One of the Ultimate Undead Edition)
(Disc Two of the Ultimate Undead Edition)
3 1/2 out of 5
4 1/2 out of 5
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