Directed by George A. Romero, 2009. Starring Alan Van Sprang, Kenneth Welsh, Kathleen Munroe, Devon Bostick, Richard Fitzpatrick, Athena Karkanis, Stefano DiMatteo, Joris Jarsky, Eric Woolfe, Julian Richings, Wayne Robson. 90 minutes.
A group of former National Guardsmen seek refuge from a zombie outbreak by escaping to a remote island off the coast of Delaware, only to find themselves in the middle of a feud between two stubborn rival patriarchs with ornery attitudes and fake Irish accents.
Yay, zombies. Haven’t seen a zombie movie since…I think the last zombie movie I saw was [REC], and I watched that about a month and a half ago. (Actually, in the interest of complete accuracy, the last zombie movie I watched was Pontypool and I watched it three days ago. But that review won’t be posted for another two weeks, so we’re stuck with [REC].) Zombie movies have pretty much reached their saturation point for me. However, this is a George A. Romero zombie movie—he more or less invented the genre back in the late ’60s, and you can count on his zombie movies achieving a certain standard.
Nowadays just about every third or fourth movie made is a zombie movie, so filmmakers often have to add gimmicks to make sure their zombie movies stand out from everybody else’s zombie movies. A popular recent gimmick is to add a cross-genre twist. Add zombies to a quirky indie romcom and you get Zombieland. Add zombies to a found-footage mockumentary and you get Diary of the Dead or [REC] (or Quarantine). Add zombies (and Nazis) to the unstoppable-slasher-stalks-a-bunch-of-horny-kids-in-the-middle-of-nowhere formula and you get Dead Snow.
Add zombies to a ’40s or ’50s Western (think William Wyler or John Ford, not Sergio Leone) and you get Survival of the Dead. Don’t let the modern-day rural Delaware setting or the Irish accents fool you: this is a Western in both style (lots of people riding horses, wearing long coats and wide-brimmed hats, carrying shotguns) and content (the chief influence on the storyline is apparently Wyler’s The Big Country).
(Why set it in Delaware? It was shot in Canada—it was always going to be shot in Canada, Romero lives there now—and I’m guessing that there’s not a lot of places in Canada that look like the American west or southwest. There are probably plenty of places in Canada that look like rural Delaware. Anyway, you don’t really need the actual west. All you need is a rural farming community where people dressed like this don’t look out out of place.)
Anyway, the idea of a zombie Western is an intriguing one, even if it’s going to be more like Shane than Django. The subtext (polarized ideologies, specifically their effect on the fabric of American culture) is about as appropriate as “rampant militarism is bad” or “class warfare is bad” (but isn’t anywhere near as effectively simple and visceral as “shoppers look like zombies”). And the specific idea at the heart of the ideological conflict—do zombies have an automatic right to existence?—is worth thinking about.
So where did things go wrong?
There are a lot of incidental flaws in Survival. There’s way too much CGI here (things that Romero would have had Tom Savini and later Greg Nicotero handle as practical effects—although Nicotero is credited here); specifically in the case with several set-piece zombie kills in the first half of the film, the CGI is fairly obvious and unconvincing. (Admittedly, these kills would have been very hard to pull off convincingly with practical effects as well. And with Survival being made on a $4,000,000 budget—many television pilots are more expensive—the CGI was never going to be top-notch.) There’s a couple of plot points that don’t make sense (where is Jane when Patrick sails for the mainland? I mean, Janet is obviously present, but Jane isn’t), a few unclear character motivations, things like that. But, honestly, these are quibbles. They’re incidental flaws—at least to me—and I can get past ’em. The big problem here is character development.
Character development has always, supposedly, been one of Romero’s strengths. Me, I’ve always found him a bit spotty in this regard. I’ve generally found that his character development is best when he’s got a small ensemble (Martin, Dawn), when he’s working with someone (Night; Creepshow doesn’t really count in this regard) or when he’s adapting something (Monkey Shines, The Dark Half). Give him a larger range of main and supporting characters (The Crazies, Day, Land) and he flounders a bit.
Here, he’s not so much floundering as drowning. The heads of the warring clans are little more than mouthpieces for their respective ideologies (Patrick O’Flynn representing mindless belligerence, Seamus Muldoon representing “We must do God’s will, and what God wants us to do is take care of our own and fuck everyone else”). And this is really a shame, because as I said earlier, I think the idea of zombies having as much of a right to (un)life as everyone else is worth considering, even if the answer I’d come up with is “um, no, not really.” Since Muldoon is as much a hypocrite and an asshole as he is a holy-roller caricature, viewers aren’t likely to give much credence to any radical new ideas he might espouse. Not that O’Flynn’s less of an asshole, but Romero’s target audience (horror is often a reactionary or conservative genre, but Romero’s movies are usually as liberal as horror can get) is probably more inclined to be on his side than Muldoon’s. (It should also be noted that his being so devout makes his “right to unlife” argument an implicit metaphor for the pro-life side of the abortion debate, likely alienating many of those who notice it.)
The other characters don’t fare much better. There’s only two other locals—O’Flynn’s rebellious daughter Janet, and Chuck, Muldoon’s zombie wrangler—that are developed as anything other than cannon fodder or zombie fodder. Janet is, like her father, nothing more than an ideology that walks like a person (although she’s played by Kathleen Munroe, making her an ideology that walks like a person that I’d like to take to dinner); Chuck fares a little bit better, because it takes two sound bites to sum up his motivation instead of one.
And the ex-Guardsmen, who are ostensibly the audience-identification characters? (Chew on this for a few minutes if you’re a longtime Romero fan: Romero has made a movie where the audience is meant to root for the military. If you need to get some fresh air, maybe catch a smoke, while you come to terms with that, feel free. I’ll still be here when you get back.) Other than Sarge (his full name is apparently Sgt. “Nicotine” Crocket, but if it’s referenced anywhere in this film, I have since forgotten about it), there’s a token twit, a token Catholic Hispanic, and a token lesbian (named “Tomboy,” because of course she is). In the end, though, you can let one example speak for all: early on in the film the soldiers pick up a teenage boy who might be a reference to Zombieland. Despite being arguably being the audience-identification character, he is never identified as anything other than “Boy.” Overall, Sarge is the only character who feels like a person instead of a bundle of traits and soundbites, and even then, just barely.
And it’s such a waste, really, because this is a promising cast: Munroe (even though she occasionally forgets her character is from Delaware or maybe Ireland, not Ontario), Alan van Sprang (Sarge), Athena Karkanis (Tomboy), Richard Fitzpatrick (Seamus), Kenneth Welsh (Patrick).
It’s not that Survival isn’t an enjoyable movie. There were some bits I liked: some great images (zombie mailman is awesome), some good zombie kills (even if the CGI is awful and the kills are sometimes too outright humorous, it’s still fun to watch a zombie get flare-gunned), great atmosphere, stuff to think about, and Kathleen Munroe flying across verdant fields on a horse. It just could have been so much more.
Oh well. Here’s hoping that whatever Romero’s next project is, it isn’t a zombie movie.
Moment of Zen
Kathleen Munroe on horseback: I could watch ninety minutes of nothing but that, and not get bored.