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Review: "Survival of the Dead" (George A. Romero, Canada)

The paradox of George Romero is that he is equally old-fashioned and forward-thinking; keen on the modern, thinking of it in classical terms. "Modern" in this case is society as it exists, and "classical" is of course the classical cinema, the tenets of characterization (as the source of plot, rather than just decoration for it) that Romero adheres to. Take, for comparison, John Carpenter’s claustrophobic clusterfucks, which revolve around character and audience entrapment. Romero’s horror set-ups are never about the terrifying situation and always about the trouble the characters get into by trying to solve it or escape it; if Carpenter’s horror is based on inevitability / powerlessness in the face of true horror (meaning: the value of horror in defining human limitations), Romero’s is based on how easily complications could have been averted by someone with a different personality or with fewer prejudices (meaning: the value of horror in defining human shortcomings). Therefore, it is impossible to separate Romero's situations from his characters (see also: Season of the Witch, Knightriders), and so it wouldn’t really be right to call Survival of the Dead a movie about an island full of zombies; it is, in Romero tradition, a movie about a group of hard-headed individuals and how this island of zombies they come upon is organized, ruled and dealt with. This is exactly what makes Romero a great political filmmaker: when he condemns wrongs, he never assumes those wrongs exist on their own—they are always perpetrated by people—and it's through the improvement or failure of characters that he demonstrates the possibilities or failures of society.

Because all of George Romero’s preceding zombie films, whether originally intended that way or not, seem like such grand statements—on the genre, on the purpose of horror movies, on American politics, on the structure of society—the fact that Survival of the Dead is the shortest, breeziest and least overtly ambitious of these movies (not “the story about zombies,” just “a story about zombies”) will probably make it seem like a letdown for those who follow the director’s work. And because the films that precede it in Romero's zombie ouvre can be easily split into two categories—those that deal with how society reveals itself in the face of horror (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Diary of the Dead) and those that depict how it perpetuates itself in such situations (Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead)—the fact that Survival of the Dead doesn't really fit into either category, and is barely a horror movie at all, will peg it as "minor." Survival of the Dead is a patchwork quilt of genre fabrics (film noir in the opening scenes, Western for most of the rest, with a bit of Gothic romance mixed in) and classical influences (Walsh in the 1940s, late Dwan, The Thing from Another World and especially Anthony Mann in the 1950s), and if it's a minor film, it's one full of major ideas—and if it lacks overt ambitions, it more than makes up for it with unforced intelligence.

Gumshoe-faced Alan Van Sprang reprises his walk-on role from Diary of the Dead as the leader of a small gang of soldiers; a lost patrol without an army (much less a country), they are little more than well-trained badmen, hunting zombies and wi-fi signals in the country dark. After happening upon a teenager (Devon Bostick; he's got a bright future ahead of him if anyone ever decides to make a D.J. Qualls biopic) and an armored truck full of useless cash, they watch a video on the kid's iPhone (zombies have destroyed America, but not AT&T) about Plum Island, a little place "off the coast of Delaware," isolated and safe. Soon enough they learn (the hard way) that the rumors are a ruse perpetrated by a group of Plum exiles itching to get back to their island, but they have no choice but to man an abandoned ferry (a strange pattern emerges: this is the third film releases in 2010, after The Ghost Writer and Shutter Island, to involve a ferry in the plot), head out to Plum and get tangled in its intrigues. Through their petty and self-centered plans (to get away from it all, and never have to help anyone ever again) they get ensnared in the petty and self-centered plans of others and are sent off to a land ruled by pettiness and egoism.

Always up for being both new and outdated, Romero populates Plum with Canadian TV actors playing anachronistic Irish cowboys and then films them in an HD approximation of Cinemascope, taking full advantage of the Red One's Ansco-Color-like hues. Van Sprang's gang finds its way to the blood feud—shamed patriarch Patrick O'Flynn (Kenneth Walsh) returning to have his revenge on Stetson-ed land baron Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick)—because of a pair of viral videos (Romero's smarter about technology than a lot of people a third his age, and he can actually think / write / compose in terms of it while they awkwardly integrate references to text-messaging into their romantic comedies / edge-of-adulthood dramas). Ontario stands in for Delaware Bay while suspiciously resembling the Vermont township from The Trouble with Harry, whose citizens also worked pretty hard to ignore the dead (Hitchcock offered hope and a future, while Romero can only offer survival), and O’Flynn’s daughter (Kathleen Munroe) tries to set things right while her undead twin haunts the landscape on horseback, slightly out-of-focus in close-up like some Grandrieux nightmare. Our 21st century men and women have stumbled into a 20th century myth of the 19th century.

Or is the 21st century filtered through the 19th as imagined by the 20th? Romero sets all of the characters up as desert loners and then pairs them up in unusual configurations (the lesbian soldier and her straight male comrade-in-arms, who passes the time jokingly hitting on her because there aren't any other women around; an independent daughter at odds with her crank father; Van Sprang's tough guy and a dweeby grunt with a shaved head) only to force them apart and then re-unite them in desperate circumstances. He treats the zombie-movie staple of mercy-killing the infected as the genre convention it is (no different from a confrontation in a Western, or the inevitable dance number in a musical), and, from the opening scene onwards, repeats it over and over again with different sets of characters, rooting Survival of the Dead in the old tradition of the cinema of decision-making, a screen where we watch people without obviously stated scruples make compromising moral choices. A place where directors are expected to have consciences first and styles second. This genre faithfulness / narrative seriousness makes Survival Romero's least satiric zombie film since Night of the Living Dead, and possibly the least gruesome overall, executing the gore in a perfunctory way, more interested in the mundane comings-and-goings of the zombies (who have lapsed into repeating their pre-death activites over and over) than their horrific potential, and staying so close to the characters that, as in Ford or certain Becker, bit players (especially the weathered old sea salts who make up both sides of the Plum Island war) become familiar faces even if we never learn their names.

"It was an us vs. them world, and all we were looking for was a place where there was no them," Van Sprang says in the opening narration, when the movie is still in film noir mode (thick shadows, concrete details, close-ups of faces, desperate men on the run and their pathetic hopes). But of course "us" was always the problem, and the moral of Romero's zombie films remains: horrific situations are not as dangerous as desperate people, and desperation comes from a need to either regain or establish order. Meaning: the rules that give people a sense of security are the same ones that will destroy them. Meaning: the only inevitable factor is that society, as it exists, sets humanity up to fail.

Nice article. I had never compared Carpenter and Romero in that way, and I think you articulated exactly the different ways in which they each manifest horror. Coolio. thanks
Very nice write up! I’ve always been a bigger Carpenter fan, finding his use of fate more compelling and horrifying than the tensions of chance that Romero employs.
Kalvin, I like both about equally, and obviously there is a lot of “closeness to the characters” in Carpenter, though, with the notable exception of Ghosts of Mars (a film maudit if there ever was one!), it seems like what happens around the characters is more or less inevitable (whereas in Romero it is almost always the result of their actions; here I should note that in an early, much longer draft, the Carpenter / Romero “dichotomy” went on for something like two paragraphs). But it seems like a lot of “serious writing about John Carpenter” involves invoking Howard Hawks, whereas I think most of his best work does deal with this sort “true horror” — and though I sometimes find Romero more compelling, I always find Carpenter more terrifying ( I think Carpenter, in the end, cares about horror more than Romero does, and it’s more central to his understanding of his own purpose).
Really interesting piece. I haven’t seen Romero’s entire zombie oeuvre, and I almost don’t want to classify this as a horror movie, but as far as frame-by-frame aesthetics go I can’t think of another recent horror film that has made such careful and luscious use of the physical landscape. I’ve never considered Romero’s cinema to be particularly visually striking and elegant, though there are images from Night of the Living Dead which are forever burned into my mind, but this presents an interesting stop on his apparently ever-evolving aesthetic journey.
Well, I don’t think Romero ever goes for striking — but he does have a background as a cinematographer (he shot his first three films himself — including Night of the Living Dead and Season of the Witch / Jack’s Wife / Hungry Wives or whatever you wanna call it) and he certainly thinks about his images / framings, even if he doesn’t try to make ’em pretty. But the Ontario autumn in Survival is very beautiful (which is what made me think of The Trouble with Harry) — never really the focus of the image, but always undeniably there, creeping up behind the characters. Until I happened to spend a few days in Pittsburgh last year, I didn’t realize what a great feeling he had for the character of the city and for the surrounding Pennsylvania landscape (Shyamalan also has a very strong sense of it).
DS
Just want to applaud the author for what may be the best review of this film I’ve read to date. I also enjoyed the movie, for essentially the same reasons. I agree that the social commentary (which was far more prevalent in Diary) was less prominent, not really taking precedent until the third act. However, when he does set his sights on the satire, Romero again reveals the ingenious auteur lurking inside : Leave it to Romero to paint a portrait of the dangers inherent in tribalism- that bizarre capacity for separatist patriotism in the face of an overwhelming threat which calls for unification of sides and the dispensing of partisan politics – through his zombie landscape. Indeed, though the flesh easting ghouls themselves are viewed through a more comical (and sometimes piteous) lens this time around, the final shot resonates with a cold chill down the spine because of the recognizable human behavior of the participants. If nothing else, the extremely entertaining “Survival” effectively demonstrates that some forty years later, Romero’s Dead films still exist in a class all of their own.

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