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Survival Of The Dead (2009)
Director: George A. Romero

review by Paul Higson

Four decades on from his breakthrough classic, and five zombie movies under his belt, can George Romero still possibly have one more zombie film in him? His fifth, Diary Of The Dead (2007), showed signs of either waning interest or faltering ability as he false-stepped into faux documentary territory. The noir original Night Of The Living Dead not only spawned the Romero sequels but also splintered off into secondary sequels which begat sequels of their own, into remakes of the films from the original series, indeed multiple remakes of the same film, spoofs, homage, inspirations and spin-offs (Bill Hinzman, the original graveyard ghoul, returned in the cheapjack munch-fest Flesheater). Every conceivable twist and gag must have been accounted for come this stage. But no! Romero's Survival Of The Dead again teems with ideas and notions as the elderly director delivers a film as vibrant, imaginative and mischievous as anything some young buck director might bring us.

Steve Miner recently 're-imagined' Day Of The Dead (2008), though it had little in common with the original. Miner, normally old-school, went brash, populating his film with the blank and the un-likeable for yet another hurtling ferox horde, with wacko virus and highly flammable anthropophagi making quick meat of the defenceless majority but having a difficult time attaching their teeth to a core band of super-heroic action heroes. The end result was infantile and loveless.

The dead have been sprinting since Umberto Lenzi's Nightmare City (aka: Incubo della Citta contaminante, 1980) and directors have been chucking the frantic lot at us ever since. Recently, these Roger Bannisters of the undead have become the norm... because videogames and the entertainment industry dictate that the slow dead are not threatening enough. Young people have changed nought though, and most of them are hyperactive only in their head. The desperate rat-a-tat of images may be the rule of thumb but thankfully we still have filmmakers willing to give this the two fingers for something more calculated and rewarding.

Romero might also toy with the rules but he set them in the first place and that is his authority. One thing that Romero refuses to do is to jet propulsion his corpses. They continue to dawdle and take cheeky nips at the flesh of the living, and occasionally they grunt the zombie equivalent of 'pile on!' when a survivor is clottish enough to trip over his own feet. It could be argued that it is the dead's lack of momentum that allows the survivors to take the threat for granted resulting in an ironic vulnerability.

By abstaining from that modern urgency Romero's zombie films are permitted to slow down. The result is not somnambulant but a film set to cruise and so entailing a richness of detail and incidence. I might suggest that the critical set who get hung up on 'slow cinema', loitering with a movie over interminable periods of nothing for that emotional and geographical epiphany, should instead redirect their attention to the 'slow dead cinema' in which the cadavers meander allowing a lot more to be explored to ricocheting benefits.

That is not to say that this is Romero's most credible re-engagement. The initial trilogy had an inborn impetus and they were earthed by a degree of logic though at the same time retaining their gruesome EC comics appeal. In Survival Of The Dead there is less of a concept than a concept apparent. On the island of Plum, two rival clans come to blows over the status of the dead. The O'Flynns go on a turkey shoot whereas the Muldoon clan pursuing their Christian beliefs fight to keep the living dead occupied with chores or trapped in tableaux on the landscape like some twisted Disney theme park. The Muldoons' objective is to train the dead to move away from human flesh and onto pig or horse instead.

The plot is a macguffin and the real film is a compilation of the best of the past and the latest notions. It is a film that does not even begin on the island but with a renegade group of soldiers mugging other survivors searching for an escape and being offered a haven. It is a film that takes a journey, is an adventure with an ensemble of definite characters though as usual that natural intellect and comedy spilling from their mouths is all Romero. Survival Of The Dead is a war film and a western, and as to the latter it recalls Mike Hurst's barmy and incredibly entertaining Pumpkinhead: Blood Feud (2006).

There are shocks and surprises galore, clever set-pieces, the familiar cheeky dialogue, buckets of gore and outright laughs. Survival Of The Dead is admittedly absurd, its universe increasingly unrealistic as Romero tries to jam far too much in. One pictures the director mentally netting the quirky notions as they come to him and scrap-booking them until he has enough to fill a script. If that is the approach then it shouldn't work but on this occasion it does and the reason for that is that is in the presentation.

Romero's best have been so for certain reasons. His epic tales work most well when they are made on a low budget and told as small personal adventures. It helps that he often casts unknowns... in a community of real characters, the unfamiliar, natural faces, even allowing for the handsome leads, founds a zeitgeist that make the films immediate and alive. Survival Of The Dead is possibly, technically, closest to his 1985 film Day Of The Dead (though structurally and in scenes and groupings and characterisation it also has much more in common).

The cinematography of Adam Swica is stable and suffers from no distractions and therefore reminiscent of the crisp camerawork of Michael Gornick. It is no-nonsense film technique for the most part and each shot, whether it's about story, character, landscape or tableau, has a purpose and are complementary to the viewing experience of a film with staccato storytelling. The framing contains the viewer and allows them to enjoy the ride with little notice of technique, though one of the best shock moments, perhaps because it betrays the basic film technique, comes in a sneaky overhead shot.

Survival Of The Dead is hardly perfect and it is possible that the innumerable positives distract from its flaws on the first viewing and that those blips could become more pronounced on future viewings. It is true, for example, that though the films often feature some strong female characters that the female characters are normally few and far between, and this time out its a masculine cast abetted by a lesbian soldier called Tomboy (Athena Karkanis), and an island girl, Janet (Kathleen Munroe) who turns on her gun-happy father, Patrick O'Flynn (solid veteran actor Kenneth Walsh), supporting his expulsion in the early part of the film. The minority of women comes under question and why women in particular they are so few among the survivors and what future their low number might mean for mankind, in turn wondering what ultimate purpose there is for the haven.

Survival Of The Dead is kept bubbling, as is the usual with Romero, with the remarkable and the daffy, but also with thoughts that you are at a wonder as to why none of the pretenders have picked up on them before. Here the slow dead are so retarded that one character decides he can use one as a shield against gunfire. Who else could come up with the image of a beautiful female zombie on horseback riding furiously across fields? In one nightmarish sequence at the harbour a soldier, Francisco (Stefano D. Matteo) swims for a boat though the floor is not too far below and the hands of the dead reach out of the water for him. The film also answers the question, what happens when the living bites the dead?

In a slapstick note of familiarity (which exits EC and enters Looney Tunes) one character lights a stick of dynamite and opening a door takes advantage of a grabbing zombie hand to allow it to take it indoors with that now textbook zombie curiosity. A horny young teenager (Devon Bostick landed with nothing more than the epithet of 'Boy') cannot help passing comments on the few women he encounters, whether they be alive or dead ("She's beautiful." ... "She's dead!"). Speculating with Nicotine (Alan Van Sprang, returning from a small role in Diary Of The Dead; he was also in Land Of The Dead) on which of them island girl Janet might go for, Sarge responds: "You're too young. I'm too old. She's got issues!"

Survival Of The Dead proves Romero still more than capable and sprightly of mind. Ought we baulk and guffaw come the mention of another Romero dead film after this? Should they announce George A. Romero's Kerfuffle Of The Dead, or his Jamboree Of The Living Dead (though Diamond Dead could be the very film), I will continue to hold faith that Romero will have completed a mental scrapbook of notions worthy of taking to film. I come to this conclusion on the basis of what he continues to prove himself capable of at an age where other directors of his generation have slipped into apparent dotage.

Survival of the Dead



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