Survival of the Dead
Review by Mike Finkelstein
The George Romero "Dead" films have not, traditionally, had sequels. They are all in a kind of shared universe of a sort, the kind of thing where the idea of a zombie apocalypse evolves from one movie to the next, with the continuity of it being how the zombies behave and what they do, but there's usually no carry over of characters or settings. Each one is completely self-contained, a necessity considering that the first batch of movies were each filmed ten years apart from the one before it.
But then we come to Romero's last film in the series, Survival of the Dead, and this one very much is a sequel. Well, or maybe "spin-off" is a better term as the movie follows a side set of characters -- four military people that rob the heroes over in Diary of the Dead, as we watch these jerks on their own adventure. It's a weird place to pick up the film, but then there's so much that's strange and weird about this movie beyond the basic setup.
The movie opens with Sarge (Alan van Spring) discussing their role in the events of the last movie. He complains that while, yes, he did steal a bunch of stuff from the teens that doesn't make him a bad guy. He just had people to feed and it's every group for themselves. After this reintroduction. Sarge and his squad find another group of survivors who almost immediately try to rob these army guys. It doesn't go well for the other guys, but one of that group, a kid just called "Boy" (Devon Bostick), talks his way into joining the military crew. He then lets them know about a message he's been seeing on the 'net about a colony off the coast of Delaware. The message comes from Patrick O'Flynn (Kenneth Welsh), one of the islanders, who is helpfully sending survivors over to the island for a new and better life.
O'Flynn, though, has his own secrets. He was from the island, yet, but then he was kicked off after a dispute with his long-time rival Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), with the Muldoons and the O'Flynns traditionally splitting the island down the middle (like a couple of bad roommates). However, after the dead started coming back to life, O'Flynn wanted to kill the dead but Muldoon wanted to keep them alive, in hopes that one day a cure would be found. O'Flynn was kicked off the island, so his sending survivors over was meant as a bit of a poke in the eye at Muldoon. However, as the military guys find out, all those newly arrived survivors have been regularly killed by Muldoon and his gang. It's up to Sarge, his crew, and O'Flynn to stop Muldoon and maybe find some kind of peace on the island.
It's hard to say there was much I actually liked about this film because, honestly, it's a piece of crap. Diary of the Dead wasn't a great film, mind you, but in comparison to the one that head directly come before it, Land of the Dead, it was a vast improvement. Survival of the Dead, though, reverts back to the pettiness and stupidity of Land without adding much new to the commentary. Swap out an island for a city and shop down the budget by a substantial margin and you could layer whole parts of Land right over Survival. It's the haves versus the have nots, those in power against those scraping by.
The movie goes out of its way to remind us of the crappy thing Sarge did back in Diary of the Dead, but instead of making the character feel more lived in it actually puts the movie off on the wrong foot. He's a jerk and doesn't seem in the least bit ashamed of his actions in the previous film, so the only way the film can make Sarge into a hero is to make everyone else in the movie even worse. That means there's basically no one in the film that's likable or good, so if they all get eaten you hardly care at all.
On top of that, the whole storyline between O'Flynn and Muldoon is comically stupid. It's Hatfields and McCoys but with a couple of Irish families on a tiny island. Both men feel like they stepped out of a parody of an Irish movie, and I'd call it racist is they weren't both white (it's probably still racist, just from a different perspective). They're also played as over the top and comedically dumb, neither of them given any substance or weight, so you don't care about their grievances or what's happened in the past. When the zombies inevitably come for everyone (as they always do in these movies) you're happy that everyone is about to die. It's a relief.
And, frankly, the zombie action in this movie is terrible. I complained in the past, especially in Land of the Dead, about the overuse of CGI when the classic trilogy of "Dead" films all used practical effects. Well, probably due to budget, it's even worse here with so many awful, obvious, CGI shots that probably looked terrible back when the film was released and really haven't aged well in the interim. This movie just looks so awful, filmed in the backwoods of someone's house, done on the cheap, and with little care for the action or the story.
In short, this film is just terrible. Considering that Romero was able to recover from the misfire of Land of the Dead with Diary of the Dead two years later, a film I genuinely enjoyed even if it didn't stand up to his classic trilogy, it's easy to imagine Romero bouncing back from this film again, especially if he too his customary ten years and really plotted something new and special for his next movie. Unfortunately, Survival of the Dead would prove to be his last film. Although there were plans in place to make Road of the Dead as late as 2017, Romero's death put a complication in that project. The script was done and a different director was already on the project, but without Romero the film seems to have fallen into development hell.
At this point I think we all have to look at Survival of the Dead as the last film in this series and, frankly, it's a terrible finish. It's just a bad movie, all around, and knowing it wasn't meant to be the last film doesn't make it any better. We would have been better off, frankly, with Diary of the Dead as out last film. At least then it would have made some kind of sense: we saw the whole progression of the outbreak so now we go back and see the very first days of it from a new perspective. But here, what does Survival of the Dead really add to the series? Nothing. It has no purpose, no characters to care about or story to invest in.
It's biggest evolution is to point out that maybe zombies could eat meat other than humans (a plot point raised and tossed off without much follow up in the movie itself). Perhaps it would have been an idea explored in the next film, to show that the zombies aren't a threat now because they eat animals, but I don't see what bearing it has here. The zombies are shown eating a horse at the end of the film but that doesn't mean they won't eat humans, too? Now you just have the dead fighting the humans for another food source and that seems somehow worse.
I don't know about you but I'm going to think of the films as a single trilogy and forget everything that came out after 1985. I think we're all better off at this point if Day of the Dead is the last film in this series any of us pay attention to. The second Romero trilogy hardly stands up to the first, adding nothing new to our understanding of the outbreak and giving us no one we can really care about in the process. I appreciate that Romero wanted to continue exploring the world he crafted all those years ago, I just think that maybe he was better off leaving it alone long before this decade of his series.