Fantastic Fest – Survival of the Dead

George Romero, the grandfather of modern zombie cinema, was in attendance to show off his new movie Survival of the Dead.  It’s a spinoff of the recent “Diary of the Dead” and, like it, is completely independent.  He says he envisions doing a four movie series like the first “of the Dead” linked series (Night, Dawn, Day) but along this new, different storyline.

I am always of two minds about Romero.  He’s of course a seminal figure in the field, his first zombie movie especially was brilliant, and has spawned an entire genre.  But…  His ideas aren’t aging well, and it often seems to be more of the same, without the additional polish you would tend to hope would come to pass over a career spanning so many decades.  I’d use a geek analogy to Gary Gygax, co-creator and main popularizer of the Dungeons & Dragons game – yay, he created a lasting cultural icon, but then over the next three decades he kept regurgitating the same ideas without, really, much evolution and became less and less relevant.  (It’s a step better than the Linus Pauling syndrome, where someone who was brilliant in a given field picks up crackpot theories in another – Pauling was a brilliant chemist who gave us several important theories, especially on the nature of atoms, but later in life hooked in to the idea that megadoses of Vitamin C would cure anyone of anything and went onto the quack circuit.)

Anyway, Survival of the Dead, as I feared, has its good points but also has many weaknesses and inconsistencies.  It follows some ex-National Guardsmen gone wrong (and a sassy kid they pick up) as they go to an island rumored to be free of the undead, but instead run afoul of a family feud.  Romero said he was going for a Western feel with this one, but it felt like he briefed one set of actors (the islanders) on that and neglected to brief the other (the Guard) and it yielded an extremely inconsistent tone.  Furthermore, though generally “serious,” there are moments of camp, like one zombie kill where the cap of its skull spins around before coming to a rest on its neck-stump like something out of Army of Darkness.  Similarly, at times it seems like life is going on OK in the U.S. despite the zombie plagues – late night hosts joke about “deadheads” and the Internet is still working – but then it seems like every single location is infested with undead and completely unlivable.  The movie couldn’t figure out what it wanted to be and veered wildly between several different tones.

The nominal addition to the Living Dead mythos here is that one of the islander families doesn’t want to kill the zombies, but keep them around as revered ancestors; rationalizing it as maybe someone will find a cure one day.  This could be an interesting premise, but it ends up being incoherent – the family is “zombie ranching” on their farm but carelessly kills them plenty themselves.  Then they change their story to “trying to teach them to eat something besides people!”  But no matter how you look at it, that’s stupid and pointless.  First, teaching zombies to eat livestock would just denude the world of animals as well as humans.  Second, zombies don’t need to eat – they just kill and “eat” out of their bizarre undead natures.  It’s not like they can “fill up” on something – they’ll eat your dog and then eat you;  you’re not being used as food per se, it’s not like they get nutrition out of it.

In the end, the failure of this movie and the other more recent Dead movies can’t be blamed on budget – it’s the script, and an inability to craft a coherent narrative.

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