Tuesday, May 25, 2010
TEFB RANDOM REVIEW: GEORGE A. ROMERO'S SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD
Directed by George A. Romero
Starring Alan Van Sprang, Kenneth Welsh, Kathleen Munroe
Even if you don't know the name George A. Romero you're certainly aware of the impact he's had on cinema since the late 1960's, horror cinema specifically. The influence of his 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead can still be seen in everything from your local low-budget indie films to high-concept and polished films like Zombieland. While he didn't quite invent the zombie genre, Romero's early films define it, and you'd be hard pressed to find a horror director working in the medium today who doesn't owe a debt of gratitude to the grandaddy of zombie horror.
After abandoning the walking dead after 1985's Day of the Dead (sequel to 68's Night and '78's Dawn of the Dead), Romero returned to the world of undead flesh eaters with 2005's Land of the Dead, the only "Dead" film to be financed by a major Hollywood studio. A modest hit at the box office and well received by both critics and fans alike (including this one: Land of the Dead, although no Dawn, is classic Romero with studio backing), the almost 70 year old director decided he wanted to keep returning to zombie land. He followed Land up with another independently produced production, Diary of the Dead. An abysmal and shoddy piece of work, Diary failed to generate much interest from just about anyone. Anyone besides its director, that is. Undaunted by the reception to Diary, Romero went ahead with plans to make his first direct sequel to a Dead movie (Night, Day, Dawn, Land, and Diary, while all taking place in a world full of zombies, are not related character, plot, or storywise, therefore the latter four are technically not sequels to Night or each other), which resulted in Survival of the Dead.
Survival of the Dead begins with the introduction of a minor character from Diary of the Dead - National Guardsman "Nicotene" Crocket (Alan Van Sprang). While he and his men learn to cope with the oncoming onslaught of the undead, a separate story is taking place on an island off the coast of Delaware. Here, the residents of Plum are sharply divided between two families: the O'Flynns and the Muldoons. Patrick (Kenneth Welsh), head of the O'Flynns, believes the undead should be wiped out, as they only pose a danger to the living. Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), on the other hand, is of the mind that zombies can learn and become human again. Therefore he keeps them around - some as slaves, some locked in a barn, most chained up - until either a cure can be found or they can be tamed. After a spat at a local farmhouse, the O'Flynns are banished from Plum Island by the Muldoons. The O'Flynns soon run into "Nicotene" and his Guardsmen and, with trained military men and powerful weaponry at their side, travel back to Plum to reclaim their place on the island.
Romero has always, with his Dead films, buried social commentary in horror genre trappings. Night of the Living Dead dealt with race relations, Dawn took a bloody screwdriver to gluttony consumerism, Day of the Dead's nihilistic view pitted science versus the military with sickening results, a microscope was held up to class warfare in Land, and Diary of the Dead grappled with the ups and downs of Generation Youtube. Survival of the Dead is no different, although the lessons Romero is trying to teach are a little more convoluted this time around. It doesn't help that Survival is the second Romero Dead film to use voice-over, which the screenwriter (Romero himself) is terrible at. The first four (and especially three) Dead films work because the viewer isn't bludgeoned over the head with themes and soap-boxing. Diary and Survival's messages are diminished in overwrought prose designed to make sure the dumb get the point. Therefore, Survival's commentary on war and land-ownership is subdued by tepid narration and stilted delivery (admittedly the second part of the statement is not the fault of Romero).
Thankfully, the social commentary (normally something Romero is brilliant, if a little overbearing, with) is just about the only thing in Survival of the Dead that doesn't work. The rest of the film (all 90 minutes of it) is just about the best zombie film you're going to see outside of a Comedy Central showing of Shaun of the Dead. This time, Romero has decided to slip another genre into his zombie story: the Western. Taking cues from William Wyler's The Big Country, Romero has spliced in elements of the Old West into the tried and true Zombie Survival Story.
The best thing Survival has going for it is brevity. This may sound like a knock at first, but it's not. At an hour and a half, Survival of the Dead knows when to quit. It's the tightest film Romero has been a part of, and it breezes by. I'm not sure if the fat was cut in editing or if the original screenplay was as lean as a venison steak, but the movie is as economical in storytelling as they come. It's crackerjack pacing, and I was surprised when the film ended, after being tortured with the laborious effort it took to get through Diary of the Dead. Romero may not have won any fans with that previous work, but he certainly learned how to pace his next film better.
What also makes Survival work is both the acting and the humor, the former creating the building blocks for the latter. Romero's Dead films have always had a darkly funny streak (save for Day, which is so bleak and unrelentingly mean I imagine Hitler would tell it to lighten up), and Survival might be the funniest. It helps that the kills are creative (seriously, what would a zombie film be without creative and fun examples of how to kill the undead/have the undead kill the living?) and that the actors (especially Kenneth Welsh) play along with Romero's black comedy game. Not all of those in the cast can act, necessarily (a few run the emotional gamut from A to B), but they're all good sports, and as classy and fine as a Romero film can get in the casting department. Land of the Dead may have had movie-stars to its advantage (Dennis Hopper, John Leguizamo, Simon Baker), but Survival has the D-grade, just about works, could be good if they really tried cast that Romero's films have had from day one.
Because Survival of the Dead is such a solid and tight film, it's a shame that Romero relied on computer generated effects to complete some of the more elaborate kills in the film. This is the third film the director has used CG in, and it's unfortunate that he's just not very good at incorporating it into the story. The visceral, comic-book violence of Dawn of the Dead and the graphic in your face kills of Day are memorable because they're practical; done in camera and on set. While I appreciate that doing the effects by computer is faster and, most of the time, cheaper, but when the CG is as noticeable as it is in Survival, well, George, pencil in some extra hours on location to make sure the shot looks at least serviceable.
I have to say I'm excited to have George A. Romero back on his game. Survival of the Dead was a film I enjoyed very much, and although it has numerous flaws and is somewhat workmanlike in the direction, it's a worthy entry into the Dead series, and a high water mark in the latter half of a legendary director's career. Congratulations, George. You're back.