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May 2010

Survival Of The Dead

cast: Alan van Sprang, Kenneth Welsh, Athena Karkanis, and Kathleen Munroe

director: George A. Romero

86 minutes (18) 2009
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Optimum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 4/10
review by Max Cairnduff

Survival Of The Dead

George A. Romero's production company is titled Blank of the Dead. That says everything that's wrong with this film. It's not that it's terrible. Rather, it's that it's uninspired, formulaic and by the numbers. It has its moments. If you're a fan of the genre it's probably worth seeing. It's just hard to get away from the fact that it doesn't really have anything much to say.

Like a lot of people I'm a big fan of the original trilogy (Night Of The Living Dead, Dawn Of The Dead, Day Of The Dead). Night is a masterpiece of low-fi horror. The sequel Dawn is quite simply one of the best horror films ever made. Opinions vary on the third film, Day, but for me it's a success and works well as an end to the series. Day shows a world in which the apocalypse has already happened. The handful of survivors in that film seem doomed from the outset, and fall upon each other as the despair and horror of their situation overwhelms them.

Day Of The Dead didn't leave any space or need for a sequel (some would say Dawn didn't either). All the same, 20 years later George A. Romero returned to the franchise with the disappointing Land Of The Dead, a film that smacked of studio compromise. The cast was noticeably better looking than in the previous films and the plot was markedly less coherent. The real problem with Land though was more fundamental - it had no purpose. The previous films had covered the territory. All Land had left to work with was the idea of sympathetic zombies but even that had already been addressed through the character of 'Bub' in Day.

After Land came Diary Of The Dead, a re-imagining of the series and updating to the modern day. Diary was flawed, and hated by many fans. I rather enjoyed it, but I did so despite its central conceit that it was a real-time documentary of the zombie apocalypse. It was an idea that didn't really make much sense, and that was made worse by several characters within the film pointing out how it didn't make sense.

That whistle-stop tour brings us back to Survival Of The Dead. It's the sixth film in the series, and the second of the contemporary re-imaginings. It's very much a sequel to Diary. The central characters are a group of national guardsmen who appear in Diary when they rob the protagonists of that film at gunpoint. As the concept of Diary is that of a documentary - it means the national guardsmen have seen the previous movie, and have suffered from their actions being broadcast on the Internet. They need to lie low. The double combination of internet infamy and zombie uprising is just too much to safely manage.

While the idea that characters in the film are caused problems by their being shown in the previous film is clever, it also doesn't make a lot of sense. This is the end of the world. Is it really likely the Internet would still be working? This is made worse by the main strand of the film's plot hanging off a boy the group meet picking up a web-cast which speaks of an island where the zombies are manageable. The boy shows the guardsmen the broadcast on his iPhone, and while I'm not sure whether he was using wi-fi or a mobile phone connection either way it makes no sense at all.

The island is called Plum Island. As the guardsmen soon learn, it's a home for two rival families who control it - the Muldoons and the O'Flynns (although set in the US, the islanders are all for some reason Irish). The families have long feuded, and the end of the world hasn't stopped that. The O'Flynns believe the best response to the zombie threat is to kill all those who are infected so as to ensure the situation doesn't get worse. The Muldoons believe that the risen dead should be protected in case one day they can be cured. The guardsmen team up with Patrick O'Flynn (Kenneth Welsh in entertaining form), and by doing so find they've picked a side in the dispute.

What all this means is that effectively Survival is a western. The O'Flynns and Muldoons are in a range war. The zombies are the American Indians. There's the usual element of social commentary (part of the series concept now I think) with the film showing how people let their hatreds destroy them but really it's something of a genre mash-up.

In principle the setup for the film isn't a bad one. The idea of finding an island and making a home there is an old one in zombie cinema, and it's surprising how rarely the practicalities of that are explored. Here though there are several problems. For a start, the film seeks to create a parity between the positions of the O'Flynns and the Muldoons so as to put their dispute in better relief. The difficulty with that though is it's soon apparent that if Patrick O'Flynn's zombie cleansing policy were followed there wouldn't really be a film. Plum Island would, after all, be zombie free and people wouldn't be dying.

More seriously, the film has significant issues of tone. Soon after we meet the guardsmen there's an extraordinarily gratuitous scene where Tomboy (Athena Karkanis) sits masturbating in front of the other guards and then reveals that she's a lesbian. It's utterly incredible and really is just blatant fan service. As the film progresses that thankfully doesn't recur, but it does then introduce some deeply unsuccessful comedy elements.

There's long been a comic note to Romero's films. Dawn had a zombie hit in the face with a custard pie. Here though it's much more pronounced. The result is scenes such as one where a grenade is thrown at a group of people only to leave them standing after the smoke clears with their clothes burnt away and their hair singed. It's an effect taken from cartoons and it sits oddly in a scene which otherwise involves people being eaten alive and dying screaming.

There are several other, similar, moments and they're simply overdone. Their effect is to remind you that you're watching a film, that none of its real and that nothing needs to be taken seriously. All of that's true, but it's not helpful to make it quite so blindingly apparent.

Finally though, the real problem with the film is that it's difficult to care about what happens. Not everything is terrible, I enjoyed Alan van Sprang as the guardsmen's leader and there's a nice set-piece where a guardsman has to swim through zombie-infested water. It's not enough though. The dialogue is weak, the zombies aren't scary, the characters aren't frightened - which makes it hard for the viewer to be, the plot doesn't really make much sense and the comedy is far too intrusive.

This is a production line film, a generic series product. It has its moments and I've seen much worse but it's just got nothing to say. The components are all taken from previous and better films and the few new elements that are there (more smart zombies) if anything undermine the concept. It's all there because it has to be. It's Romero-by-numbers.

At the end of the day, if you're a Romero fan or a fan of zombie movies then this is probably worth seeing once. It's quite fun and it's comfortable and familiar viewing. It's just all a bit uninspired. It's blank of the dead, and that's what's wrong with it.

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