Only a Thread
Romero Loses His Credibility
By Cole Smithey
Sometimes nothing is better than something. George A. Romero's latest zombie retread demotes the 70-year-old filmmaker to a pale imitation of the groundbreaking director who invented zombie satire in 1968 with "Night of the Living Dead," and then shifted to full-on postmodernism with "Dawn of the Dead" (1978) and "Day of the Dead" (1985). This time around, anachronisms abound. On the Delaware island of Plum rival Irish families feud about how to handle their kith and kin after they've been infected by the ever-approaching rampaging zombies. A rogue military squad led by Guardsman Sarge (Alan Van Sprang) learns about the island refuge from a hipster boy (portrayed inadequately by Devon Bostick) they capture along with an armored truck filled with three million bucks. The team ends up embroiled in the crossfire of a family squabble after making their way onto the idyllic island. Strident patriarch Patrick O'Flynn (Kenneth Welsh) has no hesitation about killing anyone infected by a zombie bite, while his rival Shamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) would rather keep his zombie relatives on a short chain. Muldoon hopes to train them to eat animal flesh rather than human meat. Athena Karkanis plays Tomboy, the unit's token lesbian, whose chances of finding love are zero. Zombie blood gets gratuitously splattered, but there's nothing at stake in a movie that should never have been made. "Survival of the Dead" doesn't even qualify as a guilty pleasure.
Zombies represent hell on earth. Brueghel the Elder's 1562 painting "The Triumph of Death" shows a terrible vision of an army of skeletons attacking a village while dark fires burn across the sky in the background. It's much more than a nightmare. It's a scenario that no matter how much you study it, the more bewildering and frightening it becomes.
We have come to understand zombies very well. We know they are slow but tenacious, mindless creatures singularly obsessed with ripping apart live human flesh. Unlike Brueghel, Romero has lost sight of the nightmare of such an environment. He prefers to embrace it as more of a dream from which the viewer might not be bothered to be awoken for all of its comforting elements. There's no horror, and as such no satire.
The Viet Nam War weighed heavily in the gritty subtext of "Night of the Living Dead." Romero's commentary on race relations gave the film an unmistakable backbone of au currant import that hit you in the gut. "Dawn of the Dead" foreshadowed the military industrial complex and radical right wing extremism that have come to rule every spectrum of America's social and political spectrum.
By comparison "Survival of the Dead" represents a throwing in of the towel. It's a cartoon rather than a work of rigorous cinematic art. Rather than contextualize the breakdown of global societies (witness the current crises in Greece, Thailand, and the U.S.), Romero has written a story that would fit better into a '60s era "Star Trek" television episode. The film doesn't come anywhere near the thematic heft of a half-hour episode of Rod Serling's "Night Gallery" (also from '60s television).
Horror films shouldn't necessarily respond to the overwhelming circumstances of economic, natural, and social catastrophes, but when you are the progenitor of the myth, you do have a certain obligation to rise to the level you established. Where "Night of the Living Dead" was a tapestry, "Survival of the Dead" is barely a thread.
Rated R. 90 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)