"Death isn't what it used to be"...and legendary filmmaker George Romero's latest zombie opus proves it.
Plainly put, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD bites. Man, it hurts to admit that. Maybe the latest (and hopefully not the last) DEAD installment will improve slightly on repeat viewing, since my expectations have now dropped below freezing, but even with two tiki drinks in me, I had a lot of trouble enjoying the damn thing, despite anticipating it for over a year, and promoting it heavily via my own network. SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD is simply George A. Romero's worst zombie film, and really the only one that has almost totally let me down (I can't say it completely let me down because even a lousy Romero zombie movie is somewhat worthwhile, and these days, I'll take what I can get). I spent a lot of energy defending the much maligned mini-masterpiece LAND OF THE DEAD (2005), which has become my third favorite DEAD flick (after '85's DAY and '78's DAWN ), and even '07's DIARY, which, while weak in some technical areas, featured some awesome zombie bits (as it were) and flashes of the classic Romero wit. SURVIVAL lacks either. The only truly original scene was the pre-released promo clip of the guy fishing for zombies from the roof of a boathouse, catching one behind him in his hook by accident. I thought that was amusing but didn't ever suspect it was the highlight of the whole damn film. SURVIVAL, punctuated with routine action sequences, lacks that sinking, hopeless feeling of apocalyptic dread that used to be Romero's calling card, permeating the original trilogy to an almost distressing degree, and which at least trickled down through LAND and DIARY. No echo of it here. None. And the musical score? I know I heard one, but I can't recall a single note of it. DAWN and DAY both have definitive zombie soundtracks, and even LAND'S score was suitable, just not in the same league as the peerless Goblin and John Harrison works of sonic art. The background score here could be for any old movie, or TV show. I just can't remember it at all. That's just plain wrong for a film that relies so much on creating a certain ambiance to advance its alleged agenda: to scare the crap out of us, or at least, provoke some kind of gut reaction, as it were. And it underscores, so to speak, the lackluster atmosphere, despite some nice shots of the scenery. The very final image is visually beautiful, but there's no emotional payoff to make it truly memorable. To his credit, Romero has yet to repeat himself - every one of this DEAD films has its own specific mood, vibe, feel and plot, and SURVIVAL is no exception. It just didn't come together as well as his previous efforts. The problem isn't with the plot (something about warring Irish clans on an island off the coast of Delaware) or the acting (which is at least on par with the uninspired script) - it's the direction, or lack thereof, as if Romero just phoned it in from the mainland, hopefully while preparing his final masterpiece, which would ideally be called APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD.
In a word? This film feels tired. Like Romero's been bitten by one of his own zombies, and he's just waiting out the clock of doom, killing time instead of thrilling his legions of fans (and nobody's a more hardcore Romero supporter than I am). Maybe he'll return one more time, hungrier than ever. Now I really hope he makes one last DEAD film. This can't be his send-off, the final chapter of one of the greatest franchises in horror history, and my personal favorite. His legacy is just too important. The man single-handedly invented a genre that has spread like a virus through all forms of mass media, with hardly a dime to show for it, and too many punks have tried to take over his mantle. ZOMBIELAND? Yawn, but it's about on par with SURVIVAL. Zach Snyder's unduly popular remake of DAWN? OK at best, but dare I say it...even that over-rated knockoff was more entertaining than SURVIVAL. That is very painful for me. I even liked DIARY more than the remake of DAWN, which was more like a big screen action video game than a true horror film to me. But that's all I expected from it, so I wasn't disappointed. But this is the first time Romero, the undisputed Zombie King, has made an overall sub par zombie flick, IMHO. It really comes off like a TV movie made on the fly for the SyFy Channel - even the CGI effects are not only overdone, but poorly done. Worst of all: the zombies don't even seem to matter much in this context. They're like a comical nuisance as opposed to a horrifying menace. Might as well be cockroaches for all we care. I read that critique before watching this and thought Romero may have fun with that premise. That's the root of the problem. He doesn't seem to be having any fun here (though he was clearly enjoying himself with DIARY, often more so than the audience, but not always.) So I didn't have much fun, either. Even his famous social commentary is sorely missing this time, other than the passionless attempt to moralize about the pointlessness and self-destruction of tribalism, which was a perfect subject to satirize. But he doesn't go all the way with the concept, as he normally does. I'm puzzled why he even bothered making this movie at all.
So is this film even worth seeing? If you're a Romero completist, or a zombie completist, like me, sure. But don't expect to be that thrilled by it. I'll definitely see it again when it's released May 28 for a limited run at the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley to enjoy the enhanced experience on the big screen, but mostly to support one of my favorite filmmakers in his twilight years. I hesitated to post this review for fear of adding to the rabid anti-Romero backlash from whiney, ungrateful, clueless assholes who don't respect his unique, indispensable contributions to modern horror, like I'd be joining the Tea Party against Obama (who thankfully is still in his prime, unlike our boy George.) I'll also buy the official DVD when it's released, to complete my collection. I'm just not looking forward to it as much as I have been for the past year or so.
Dear King George: let's try this one last time, and please, somebody with some Hollywood heft, give the man a decent budget, something to work with, something to inspire him. Without George, zombies would still look like washed up basketball stars walking in their sleep. Give the man his due, and give him a piece of his own action. He needs to go out with a glorious bang, not a ponderous whimper, and SURVIVAL is a sorry, flat-out loser, at least on initial viewing (for me, LAND's appeal and merits increased with each viewing, while DIARY's non-fatal but still glaring flaws grew more obvious). I still can't believe this film came from the same demented genius mind that gave the world NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the most influential zombie movie of all time. Romero set the standards for Undead Cinema, forever, and is now finally failing to live up to them. He deserves a more respectable, and successful, swansong. Hell, let The Man direct the epic film adaptation of WORLD WAR Z! Why the hell not? Without him, there'd be no WWZ, and Max Brooks would be the first to admit that. Or let him direct some episodes of the pending AMC series based on THE WALKING DEAD comics (okay, "graphic novels"). Something, anything, to wash the taste of this rotten flesh out of my mouth. And not even human flesh - horse flesh. Zombies should not eat animals, George (and I know he loves animals, too, which is why I find this choice so perplexing.) Zombies should eat humans., exclusively, no matter how much they otherwise "evolve." That's one of their most appealing assets, at least for a grumpy old misanthrope like me.
For the record, the best zombie flick I've seen since the classic FIDO (2006) is PONTYPOOL, now out on DVD. I also enjoyed the Spanish film REC and its US remake QUARANTINE (which both, frankly, do a better job employing the first person narrative technique than DIARY did, though overall, I prefer DIARY because of its cooler zombies). And all four of these flicks boast more pure old school Romero-ness in their makeup than SURVIVAL does.
Now I have to go watch both DAWN and DAY again to get my mind right. I'll also give SURVIVAL another spin, maybe with some like-minded pals, just to put it in proper context, even though on first viewing it comes off more like a postscript than an actual entry in this legendary series. It would have worked much better as a short film, a coda of sorts, released as a DVD extra on either LAND or DIARY. I don't know, could be I just wasn't in the right mood, though I'm pretty much always in the mood for zombies, especially when mixed with Mai Tais. Maybe I'll try it with three tiki drinks this time. I recall that DAY OF THE DEAD (1985) was DOA on arrival, both critically and commercially, but now many fans, including myself, think it's Romero's greatest work. I doubt SURVIVAL will grow on its audience in the same fashion, but I hope so - for Romero's sake. At the moment, it doesn’t even belong in the same canon. He should’ve just called it They Eat Horses, Don’t They?
Aloha from the Tiki Lounge of the Depressed.