George A. Romero is the undisputed master of the zombie genre. There’s simply no arguing that anyone else has ever — or likely will ever — come close to his contributions. So the release of a new Romero zombie film is always a big deal, even if his latest offerings have received mixed reactions from critics and fans alike. And if you were expecting Survival of the Dead to buck that trend, allow me to let you down now: this is not a return to the majesty of Dawn-era Romero. It fits firmly in with his post-2000 zombie offerings Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead.
That being said, I didn’t hate either Land or Diary. I came to appreciate Land after several viewings, and I really liked Diary from the beginning, although my enthusiasm waned to some degree after additional viewings. That said, I think neither of those films is as bad as their detractors claim. Both have merit and both are at least as good as 90 percent of the zombie films out there.
As does this film. Survival is a direct sequel to Diary, picking up the story of a minor character — a National Guard sergeant turned raider — shortly after the events of that film. He goes AWOL with three members of his unit, searching for a safe harbor. Before long they pick up a fifth member, a jerky kid, and he shows them a video invitation to Plum Island, a supposed refuge from the zombies.
Naturally, the refuge turns out to be not quite as advertised, and before long the whole crew is dragooned into a blood feud between two families on the island. One side wants to kill the zombies, the other wants to keep them around in hopes of a cure (and because it’s “the right thing to do”). No one’s talking, everyone’s shooting and soon, it’s pure zombie mayhem.
That’s all pretty standard for Romero. In fact, it’s the same essential plot outline of all of his zombie films. Admittedly, the quasi-Western setting is new, as are the Irish accents all the island characters sport. The rest is pure Romero: guts, gore, favorite characters getting offed, neck biting — the whole nine yards.
That being the case it’s hard not to compare this to his past efforts. And it suffers in comparison. All of his movies have had a few clunky lines, a few moments of spotty acting and other minor issues, but Survival is plagued by them. The main actors are generally good, with the odd moment of greatness, but that makes their occasional, obtrusive clunkers stand out. It felt like Romero accepted (or used) bad takes too often, despite the actors being capable of better. With a few exceptions, the supporting cast is weak as well. Forgettable at best, painful at times, they are largely a drag.
The zombies look great and are absolutely a strong point, but there are things that a lot of people are going to hate. These zombies display more intelligence and coordination than we’re used to. Personally, I thought it worked within the story and wasn’t bothered by it, but if you have a strict list of things zombies can and cannot do, this film is sure to piss you off. I can almost guarantee it. Of course, they’ll also make you happy with some nice gruesome kills if you like that sort of thing (and I know you do).
The effects and gore are a mixed bag. Part of it is an over-reliance on CGI. I am not a CGI hater, but CGI should not be used for blood spatter. Are squibs really that expensive? Part of it was some goofy kills. Now, Romero has always had a little thing for zombie comedy (don’t forget the pie fight in Dawn of the Dead!), but a couple of these really destroyed suspension of disbelief for me — they simply weren’t remotely plausible. It wasn’t all bad — or even mostly bad — it was just a few moments that spoiled the mood.
Writing and directing-wise, it worked overall. The story made sense and the dialogue was decent, if a little hammy at times. There were some nice, tense moments and a couple great jump scares. And Romero displayed a surprisingly light touch in his message here, at least until the post-script, which was nice. It’s uneven, it will try your patience at times and there were a few moments I genuinely hated.Â Coming from anyone else, it would probably be labeled “promising.” Coming from Romero it will be labeled a disappointment. Overall, it is a decent film whose greatest sin is that it isn’t as great as his past work.