I think I understand the point that George Romero is trying to make with Survival of the Dead (2009)- you know, that maybe we (humanity, that is) are the real monsters. That's right. It's us, the jerks, and not necessarily the zombies. It's a point he's been making since 1985's Day of the Dead and at this point I just want to say: ALRIGHT. I GET IT.
With that out of the way, I hope that with his inevitable next zombie opus he can go back to his roots and do something he hasn't really done since Day of the Dead: make a scary zombie movie. If there's one thing Survival of the Dead is not, it's scary. I guess it's not meant to be, and for the millionth time: it's pointless to criticize a film for what it's not. However, I think it's well within reason to expect a horror movie to try...or, at the very least, to try to try.
The film begins a mere six days after the zombie outbreak, pitting it somewhere between Night of the Living Dead, Diary of the Dead, and Dawn of the Dead on the Romero Zombie Outbreak Timeline. A bunch of paramilitary types give us the quick rundown: the dead are returning to life, shoot 'em in the head to kill 'em. We are treated to some horrendous CGI bloodshed that will have even Stevie Wonder pining for the days of Tom Savini's latex and karo-drenched visuals.
There's a wee place off the coast of Delaware called Plum Island, and it's chock full of...Irish people. Irish-Americans? It's unclear. Their unexplainable thick brogue is something you simply need to immediately accept as a viewer and quickly move on. It's an island full of Irish folk. Fine.
Island inhabitants the O'Flynns and the Muldoons are locked in the grips of a decades-old Hatfield/McCoy-style feud, one that's come to a head in the midst of the outbreaks. Clan patriarchs have differing ideas regarding how to deal with the walking dead; O'Flynn says kill the dead dead, while Muldoon says rehabilitation is the way to go. The factions continue to disagree until Muldoon gains the upper hand and O'Flynn is cast off the island.
Three weeks later, O'Flynn and the paramilitary dudes meet up on the mainland and decide their best bet is to head back to Plum Island, to take on Muldoon and hang out in isolation until this zombie thing blows over.
They arrive at the island and discover that Muldoon's plan isn't quite working out the way he expected: when chained-up, zombies will continue to perform rudimentary, repetitive tasks like sticking mail in mailboxes. Unchained zombies enjoy horseback riding.
Above all else, the walking dead still crave the taste of human flesh. Muldoon seems to think that if zombies could be made to eat animals instead of people, everything would be both hunky and dory. Shootouts and a few more CGI zombie deaths ensue.
The thing that irks me the most, perhaps, is that the zombies are virtually unnecessary in Survival of the Dead. Human conflict in the face of a real, irrational threat, as approached in Romero efforts such as Night, Dawn, and Day of the Dead is a fine hook upon which to hang your movie. I mean really, what does happen when people stop being polite and start getting real? People get cornered in basements. People get ripped apart. People get eaten by dead people who have come back to life. That is a terrifying concept, and I don't care if the zombie genre has been kicking in earnest on and off since the late 1960s- dammit, it can still make for a terrifying movie.
In Survival of the Dead, however, no one is much afraid of the walking corpses. They're on the periphery, treated with a casualness that renders them oversized, over-bitey children. Their offed in creative ways, too be sure- but it's all too cavalier. For all the bluster and shouting of the military dickheads in Day of the Dead, they were all still damn afraid of the zombies. Therefore, I was afraid of the zombies. If they're portrayed as more nuisance than threat- this, less than a month since the outbreak!- then why bother? Why bother, George Romero? Just make a movie about how awful livng human beings can be to each other. Just have your weird Irish islanders kill each other. Zombies deserve better than to be all but ignored by characters and, by extension, you. And us.
Characters have never truly been the strong suit of Romero's. In general, one or two are marginally interesting and the rest are mostly fodder of one type or another. At this point, they all feel like caricatures; in fact, a good portion of them don't even have proper names- they're just called by type. The lesbian is "Tomboy", the boy is..."Boy", the one who smokes is "Nicotine", and so on. I expect the next film in the series will feature characters named "Wig", "Glasses", and "Nunchucks".
Wait, that kind of sounds awesome.
My point is, if you want to make this a horror film about humans more than about monsters, then at least give your humans some real humanity. And for fuck's sake, please try to work in some horror.
I tried on Survival of the Dead, really I did. I wanted to enjoy it. I did enjoy it more than the abysmal Diary of the Dead. To be honest, it's not so much that I disliked it as it is that I simply didn't care...and I certainly wasn't scared. To me, that's much more sad.
Oh yeah, and then there was that time the moon 1) swelled to a worrisome size or 2) was about to collide with the Earth.