Month of Horror 2017: Dealer’s Choice – George A. Romero: Survival of the Dead

10/26/2017 – George A. Romero: Survival of the Dead (2009)
Directed by George A. Romero

Earlier this year, we lost one of the true horror innovators. There are very few people who can lay claim to basically inventing an entire subgenre, but George Romero is one of them. Sure, zombies existed long before the 1968 release of Night of the Living Dead (see White Zombie for a more traditional approach), but the modern zombie as we know it debuted with that film. Drawing from the Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend (which called its monsters vampires), the “ghouls” of Night of the Living Dead in all their resurrected, flesh eating glory is even then recognizable to anyone now familiar with the genre.

It shocked viewers at the time with its violence (including a young and already showing the kind of opinion on horror he’d repeat time and again Roger Ebert who did at least later acknowledge it as a great film) and despite (or perhaps in part because of) those decrying the depravity, it became a huge financial success. It had a thoroughly shocking ending and even the at the time commendable decision to cast a non-stereotypical black lead is something that has stayed relatively unusual long after you would think we would know better.

That film alone, one of the greatest horror films ever made and one of the few I’ve watched a number of times, would be enough to cement a director’s eternal legacy. And for a while though, it looked like that may be the case as well. There’s Always Vanilla, Season of the Witch, and The Crazies (a decent film but I far prefer its remake) failed to capture much in the way of attention with the former seeing Romero trying to break out from the horror genre. Two films from 1978 changed this however. The first was Martin, a vampire film many who are not myself love for its unique take on the genre telling of a man convinced he was a vampire. It wasn’t a huge success though.

Dawn of the Dead however was. Romero made a sequel to his debut and breakthrough picture, updating the low budget black and white to color and somehow making a film that is not only superior, but a true masterpiece. The satirical content of Night of the Living Dead was made more explicit and gore more explicit as well thanks to the wonderful work of Tom Savini. It also has over the original the fact that it’s remake (by Zach Snyder in his debut) is superior to any of the remakes of the original (the first behind a solid one by Savini).

Romero then directed the cult film Knightriders in 1981 and the uneven but good (and far more successful) collaboration with Stephen King, Creepshow, the following year. In 1983, he created Tales from the Darkside, a spiritual sequel to Creepshow which lasted four seasons in syndication and presaged the 80s rebirth in anthology series including the Twilight Zone reboot.

The third film in his Dead series came in 1985 (the same year as Return of the Living Dead which functioned as a side sequel series to the original and popularized the whole “brains” thing about zombies) and while it wasn’t up to the quality of the first two films, it was still a great entry thanks largely to the work of Savini and Sherman Howard as Bub. As the scope of the series moved from farmhouse to mall to underground army base, the focus of the satire may have changed, but it kept things fresh. The sequels never directly connected to each other, but there was a clear progression through the first four in the scope of the outbreak. In many hands this would merely feel the way of all those DTV sequels where it is only capitalizing on name recognition, but through each of those first three films, Romero made it feel natural.

Sadly, Romero was never able to recapture this success in quality again, and even that film failed to duplicate the financial success of the first two. Monkey Shines was pretty lackluster, the Poe adaptations of Two Evil Eyes failed to duplicate the success of Creepshow, The Dark Half was even weaker and more forgettable, and 2000’s Bruiser has mostly been forgotten by time.

The rest of his career was devoted to films in the Dead series but they instead got increasingly sad. Land of the Dead was a mediocre expansion of the universe with the zombies more intelligent than they had ever been before as they started being able to actually coordinate. It also felt like a “remember me” attempt after 28 Days Later, the Dawn of the Dead remake, and Shaun of the Dead revitalized the genre. The expanded scope felt ill-suited as if Romero had finally overextended his grasp and the effects seemed less impressive. Diary of the Dead felt similarly to the found footage genre as the constant innovator had become the imitator.

That takes us to the final film Romero made before his death though he also wrote a 15-issue comic miniseries Empire of the Dead and co-wrote George A. Romero Presents: Road of the Dead which may have died with him but I can’t find anything commenting on it. It’s also the first direct sequel, following a group of soldiers who showed up in Diary of the Dead (the scene thankfully recreated for those who don’t remember that film in other words, viewers of that movie) though the found footage aspect has been dropped.

Now we are on an island off the coast of Delaware where the residents all speak with thick Oirish accents. Two competing families live on the island, one in favor of killing the zombies, one in favor of keeping them alive convinced they can be saved. There seems to be a thick religious undercurrent especially with the latter group. The head of the anti-zombie group is exiled from the island and we cut to three weeks after the outbreak began.

The soldiers see a video telling them to go to Plum Island and they oblige, meeting up with the leader from before. When they get there, they discover a bunch of zombies stuck in patterns of small menial tasks that seems stolen straight out of Shaun of the Dead. The daughter of the leader is still capable of riding round on a horse after death but apparently this is actually the unheard of to this point twin sister. The daughter though is the absolute fucking worst and I spent the movie wishing for her death. She repeatedly tells her dad to apologize to the man letting zombies loose even after they slaughter countless people and is such a terrible actress.

The movie is frankly awful from top to bottom. The acting is atrocious with Alan van Sprang especially bad as the Sarge, but really nobody involved in this film should be proud of their work and the dialogue is equally embarrassing to match. There was nothing to save this film though. The effects, once a highlight of the series and one of its calling cards has been replaced by some truly abysmal CGI (see below) and the zombie walks are some of the most laughable I’ve ever seen (everyone is also really good at hitting the exact same spot on the forehead of zombies). At one point a zombie’s head is lit on fire and he looks like Ghost Rider as he just stands there for what seems like forever.

Survival of the Dead

The plot of the warring families could conceivably be interesting but instead it requires one side to act like idiots and the other to act like badasses, a task no one in the cast is capable of. Also, SPOILERS ho the fuck cares if they can train the zombies to eat other things. They are still fucking brainless zombies and by the end of the movie I’m still not sure where the movie thinks we are supposed to be leaning. END OF SPOILERS The trademark moral complexity of the series has been replaced by clear good guys and bad guys. The efforts of the early going to portray the soldiers as mercenaries basically get forgotten by the plot.

This out does Season Two of The Walking Dead in tedium and failure which coming from a director who routinely criticized the show is pretty damn hilarious. Hell, even many of the arguments (with Hershel as the one family leader and Rick as the other) feel pretty analogous to the other. I have only two complements for the movie. First of all, the film makes a perfect one for viewers with heart conditions as there is a complete lack of tension or scares. The occasional bursts of laughter may be dangerous but otherwise, this is a perfect pick for such viewers. The second point is that the final shot SPOILERS of the two family leaders shooting empty guns at each other in front of a giant freaking moon is a nice karmic touch. It’d be a lot better if you know they portrayed the one side as anything less than cartoonishly evil and the other as being completely right and the better man throughout who actually cares about everyone. END OF SPOILERS

It’s a shame that such a legendary director had to go out on such garbage, but time had really passed him by. If Diary of the Dead was Romero playing catch up, then this was Romero at his most out of touch. I have no clue what he was trying to accomplish here and this really does feel like the work of somebody who is making this only because he isn’t able to make anything other than zombie films anymore, not because he had something more to say. Best I can tell, the only thing it adds to the series is stagnation.

Next up: I start what is likely to be a run of country profiles with Greece’s Island of Death.

2017 Partial Schedule