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Fantastic Fest Review: Survival of the Dead

By  · Published on September 29th, 2009

I have been a die-hard film geek for a few years now and as such I wholeheartedly subscribe to the god-like status assigned to Mr. George Romero. I think a lot of people, even if they somewhat respect what he’s done, may relegate him to noting more than a cult hero of the geek world. While he definitely has earned that moniker, I believe George Romero has achieved something truly remarkable within the world of filmmaking as a whole. Seeing a George Romero film, especially a brand new one, on the big screen has been on my list of things I must experience for a long time and last night, I am pleased to say I got that opportunity. Prepare yourselves for Survival of the Dead!

Survival of the Dead spins off from 2007’s Diary of the Dead; following the exploits of one of Diary’s minor characters. A less-than-honorable army commander and his unit struggle to stay alive just weeks after the onset of a zombie apocalypse. They come across a teen who had been traveling with a band of extras from Deliverance II and he tells them of a man advertising an island off the coast of Rhode Island that is free of the undead. Enticed by the idea of being free from the ravenous hordes, they set off in search of the island. What they find is that the humans on that island can be just as vicious and dangers as zombies.

I really enjoyed this film. It may seem, by all rights, that the films after the original dead trilogy have suffered from falling standards in quality. While I haven’t seen any of these films, I have heard from numerous sources that Diary of the Dead was sadly lacking. But thing I keep coming back to is that George Romero, much like George Lucas, has thoroughly established his own universe within the first trilogy that is ingrained in the fans as gospel. He has even established his universe’s timeline and created the definitive zombie apocalypse. What this boils down to is that he can play with the chronology of events within that singular apocalypse and insert new characters who would have also existed within the Romero universe during that event. I am really intrigued by this and any opportunity to see new stories from the end the world is something I relish.

This particular story is not great. It is a little goofy and mildly implausible but it does allow Romero to play with a concept that otherwise would require him to break his own rules. As I said, all the dead films take place during the same zombie outbreak and George’s adherence to that event throughout his films is what gives that event so much gravity. But in Survival of the Dead, Romero clearly wanted to toy with the idea of a zombie western but knew that going back in time would go against everything for which he is so well loved. So instead our story takes place on a tiny island populated by Irish immigrants who don’t get much exposure to the rest of the world. These people are so far removed from the rest of society that their story appears as if it is set a hundred years ago and thus allows Romero to play cowboys and deadheads.

There are two families on this island that are in the grip of a centuries-old feud that has its roots in the old country. Both of the families are ranchers and their garb of choice is long coats and cowboy hats. The military unit whom we are following throughout the film plays like a wandering band of outlaws cutting down other gangs they come across. So we have classic western themes of feuding families and outlaw gangs to couple with aesthetics that give the film, if not a 19th century look, then at least a timeless one. Yes, there are boats, cars, laptops, and big city skylines in the opening, but once we move to the island there is really nothing to distinguish the story as modern. Notions of familiar duty, honor, and settling a score all play a part and there is even a good old fashion heist. I’ve set it before and I will say it again, westerns make for some of the most interesting genre clashing in cinema.

Of course I can not talk about a George Romero zombie film without talking about the gore effects. Again this is the first of the post-trilogy entry I’ve seen but it does unfortunately look like Romero has discovered CG. Part of what made Night, Dawn, and Dayso amazing was the application, and in some cases the invention, of really fascinating practical gore techniques. Tom Savini turned splatter into science and set the standard for zombie film make-up design. While there are a few moments in Survival that do deliver those practical effects, many of the spurts, bursts, and hacks are done with low grade CG. I feel this takes away from Survival, but doesn’t ruin it by any means. The CG kills are least cleaver by and large, and may not have been possible without the aid of a computer.

I love the intentional silliness in this. There are over-the-top characters, but more than that these characters do some really wacky things that just fly in the face of rational thinking. While in another movie I may be lambasting this practice, in Survival Romero pushes the envelope on camp as a nod to the core audience who howl with glee as people are pulled limb from limb on screen before them. I count myself among those blessed ranks. There are jokes in this movie that come straight out of “Looney Tunes” that are good for a chuckle or two. There is a gag with zombie heads on sticks that keep growling that makes me laugh because it reminds me how different the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World could have been. The last shot of the film is also a riot.

This film is not without flaw. The opening storyline wherein we follow the military unit is really not terribly interesting and the actor playing the leader of said squad is sub-par. And overall, both technically and in regards to the overall universe, Survival of the Dead is kind of middle of the road. But it is incredibly fun and the inclusion of a the western angle make it worth watching. And again, I will always go into a Romero zombie film with a certain level of optimism because it represents a chance to see another perspective from this world I love so much. It’s like a novel you really love that becomes a series. I’m just happy the same author is still charge.

The Upside: Very entertaining and a chance to dig deeper into a universe we know and love.

The Downside: Some of the humor may rub some fans the wrong way.

On The Side: Romero mentioned wanting to do at least two more of these film that continue to spinoff the events of the dead trilogy.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.