George A. Romero’s return to zombiedom with 2005’s Land of the Dead was a cause célbre. The inventor of the game was back after a 20-year drought and ready to deliver more walking dead hungry for human flesh. While not as immediately satisfying as the first three installments in the Dead series, Land still possessed Romero’s skilled blend of broad social commentary and intense gore effects and scares. And its success guaranteed him more work.
Diary of the Dead (2007) followed. A rough gem, it reboots to day one of the outbreak to follow film students fleeing the undead cross-country, videotaping the carnage and societal collapse. A low-budget affair, Diary lacked Land’s spark, perhaps because it deviated from the original trilogy, but it was still pure Romero.
If only the same could be said of Survival of the Dead.
The third in Romero’s resurgence is an offshoot of Diary, but shifts the focus to renegade soldiers featured in the film.
The grunts’ attempts to find refuge leads them to an isolated island off the East Coast where they encounter two feuding Irish families, each with a distinct method of dealing with the undead problem: one kills them on sight; the other sequesters them with hopes for a cure. Their opposition leads to absolute destruction, of course.
As with all Romero zombie flicks, Survival is ultimately about strained interpersonal relationships. On that level, the film succeeds. The power struggles are fascinating. As is Romero’s use of classic American Western motifs. The clan standoffs would do John Ford proud. Romero also evolves the “rules” of his zombie universe in ways that prove revolutionary or incendiary, depending on which zombie fan you ask.
Such pluses can’t save the film, though. Over-acting runs rampant, transforming poignant and powerful moments into unintentional comedy. The CGI effects are subpar, as well. Head explosions, blood splats and other gore gags look cheap and rushed, distracting the scares rather than enhancing them. This is particularly saddening considering the pioneer FX work developed in Romero’s previous work.
Even more distressing is the lack of “message.” Romero has never been subtle with the underlying themes that link his zombie films to contemporary ills, but Survival is lacking altogether. It’s the work of a director going through the motions with nothing to say at all. Again, saddening.
Luckily, Survival is packaged with a plethora of extras that should placate disappointed fans. The 2-DVD Ultimate Undead Edition includes a full-length doc, interviews, shorts, storyboard comparisons and more. While interesting, they’re just band-aids over a gaping wound.Grade: C-