CULT MOVIE REVIEW: George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead (2009)

I have often felt that George Romero’s Living Dead movies are sort of the horror movie equivalent of the Planet of the Apes films of the late 1960s/early 1970s. 
Both film franchises started in 1968, both concern the end of the world, and both involve man’s folly as a species as he is “replaced” on the food chain by an implacable, relentless enemy. 
The Planet of the Apes and Living Dead movies similarly depict the New Order and the Old Order violently clashing. 
Survival isn’t the only thing on the line….it’s planetary dominance that’s at stake, and man can endure only if he changes the way he thinks; only if he can step away from his history of violence, ideological division and self-destruction.  I remember a trenchant line from Dawn of the Dead in 1978:
“This isn’t the Republicans versus the Democrats, where we’re in a hole economically or… or we’re in another war. This is more crucial than that. This is down to the line, folks, this is down to the line. There can be no more divisions among the living!”

Also, both the POTA and LD franchises are extremely violent in nature and imagery, though they both strongly preach anti-violent tenets. That’s not a contradiction, either.  In both words, violence is a kind of negative example.
I’ve written here before (in my review of Daybreakers) about “Anubis,” the short story Romero penned long ago that forms the unofficial basis for the Living Dead films.
In the short story’s opening scene (which ultimately became the 1968 Night of the Living Dead) a zombie was chased and exterminated by armed human soldiers while fleeing over a hill. Then, during the last shocking scene of the story, another solitary figure ran across that same hill.
But the social order had flipped. The pursuer was now the pursued. “We see it’s an army of zombies, chasing a human with an injured, bleeding leg,” Romero noted in The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh, (Paul R. Gagne, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1987, page 24).
So Romero’s tale was — and remains — an allegory about shifting social orders. It was about how there was this massive change, this massive revolution. Yet in some very critical ways, things remained absolutely the same.
For accuracy’s sake, I should note too that Romero was inspired by Richard Matheson’s 1954 vampire tale, I Am Legend, and Matheson’s idea of a new social order and a lone human attempting to defy it.

As a long-time and devoted horror enthusiast, I remember well the days when George A. Romero’s Living Dead movies arrived few and far between, and I had this burning desire, this passion, to see the next installment made, to experience the next step in what seemed like the story-teller’s grand design. 
There were ten long years between Night and Dawn; and another six between Dawn and Day.  Then there was the unbearable twenty year gap between Day and Land.
Today, by point of comparison, we’ve had three Romero Living Dead films in approximately four-and-a-half years (Land, Diary and Survival), and just emerged from a decade in which the living dead “evolved,” in great, even neo-classic horror efforts such as 28 Days Later (2002), the Dawn of the Dead remake (2004) and last, but never least, Zombieland (2009). 
It is tempting in such a world of plenty to discount George A. Romero and his continuing examination of the living dead. 
Like everything else in the YouTube age, Romero’s zombie movies are now practically ubiquitous and — another sign of the times –– homogenized to be far less gory than the cycle’s 1968-1985 iterations. 
But, if the George Lucas Star Wars prequels proved anything, it’s that the most dangerous thing to give a movie lover (or a “fan”), is exactly what he or she wants.  Back in the dry spell between Day and Land — when we arduously longed for another Romero living dead film — he was a genius.  Now that we have had three living dead films in relatively short order, he’s a hack.  Right?   He’s tired, and repeating himself. 
That’s the meme, isn’t it? 
I’m not immune to this sort of thinking, myself; which is why I feel can write about it.  I certainly spared no poison ink penning a negative review of Diary of the Dead back in 2008.  My last line was: “this professor needs a new lecture. “They are us” does not cut it anymore. Let the dead rest in peace.”
I felt (and still feel) the movie was a bad, almost amateurish misstep.
But the negative reaction to 2009’s Survival of the Dead really opened up the floodgates or recriminations against Romero.  I actually delayed seeing the film — something I never would have dreamed of doing in the between Dawn and Land — and was primed to see this entry as a tired, zombie-less, CGI dreck-fest…which was how it was portrayed far and wide by disappointed critics and horror fans.
To my surprise and shock, however, Survival of the Dead by-and-large finds Romero on strong visual and thematic ground, developing cleverly the specifics of the “Anubis” story, and — best of all — in a manner far less preachy than the first-person Diary of the Dead.   If I’m not mistaken, “they are us” is not uttered once (thank heavens…) and instead, Romero looks to recent American history for inspiration.
Specifically, Survival of the Dead occurs early in the zombie plague.  A group of renegade National Guard soldiers, led by Sarge (Alan Van Sprang) leave their unit, and follow an Internet advertisement from a strange “Captain Courageous” to visit Plum Island. 
Captain Courageous is actually the vengeful O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh), a man exiled from Plum Island by its draconian new “boss,” the despotic Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick).  O’Flynn promises Sarge and his men that they can find sanctuary, happiness and security on isolated Plum Island, and after some consideration they accept his offer.
Once on Plum Island, however, Sarge and his military unit (or rather, the survivors of his unit…) realize they have actually been manipulated into fighting a long-standing fued between the two men, a feud that has at its basis, the treatment of the dead, here called “Dead Heads.”  Muldoon wants to see if the dead can be domesticated; if they can become household servants.  O’Flynn just wants to shoot them in the head…even his own zombie daughter, Jane (Kathleen Munroe).
Looking to real life, this story has clear, recent antecedents on the national and international scene.  In 2002 – 2003, an exile from Iraq, Ahmed Chalabi, allegedly provided U.S. Intelligence false and misleading information about weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s supposed Al-Qaeda ties in Iraq. 

Obligingly, America swooped in and invaded the country, disposing of Chalabi’s enemy for him.  Chalabi said “jump,” (cuz we’d be greeted as liberators and all…) and America answered, “how high?” 

That’s pretty much the story here too. O’Flynn is a surrogate for Chalabi in Survival of the Dead. Both both men are exiles who promises a rosy picture of a faraway land (Plum Island/Iraq), and Muldoon is Saddam Hussein, the tyrant now in charge of Plum Island, who sent O’Flynn away in the first place.  A bad man, yes?  But is it the military’s job to take out a bad man in his own land? Especially if he isn’t allied with the real enemy (Al-Qaeda/the Dead Heads)? 

In the middle of this mess is the American military, represented in Romero’s film by Sarge and his lieutenant, Tomboy (Athena Karkanis).  They are basically “good” and heroic individuals, just attempting to make sense of the situation into which they have been manipulated.  Like all good Americans, these protagonists boast a powerful sense of justice, and that sense of justice is both offended and aroused when they see that Muldoon has been murdering innocent civilians on the shore of Plum Island.  He’s an “evil doer,” that much is plain. And for Sarge, that’s enough.

Ultimately, O’Flynn and Muldoon destroy each other, and Sarge and Tomboy leave Plum Island behind…wondering if there could have been a better way for the diametrically-opposed, feuding men, to solve their differences.

If you’ve seen Joseph Maddrey’s excellent horror documentary Nightmares in Red, White and Blue (and I hope you have…), then you’ve seen George Romero discuss the fact that even after something as catastrophic as 9/11, America doesn’t appear to change

“What’s it going to take to change?” Romero wonders with exasperation, on-camera. 

Well, that interrogative, “what’s it going to take to change us?” — the human race — is the idea that artfully forms the dramatic core of the director’s Survival of the Dead.

The world is falling apart, and two old, white men are still using the fears of civilians — and brandishing the military — to achieve their personal, violent, grasping aims.  Their hatred is so pervasive that they literally can’t change, and in Romero’s dazzling valedictory shot, he expresses this idea visually. 

Against the backdrop of a constant, eternal moon, a living dead O’Flynn and Muldoon stand a few feet apart, literally clicking empty guns at one another.  Over and over.  It’s futile, it’s useless. But even in death, these men can’t give up their old ways; can’t surrender their sense of entitlement and personal hatred.  They want power and they want death…and they will have it.

What’s it going to take to change?  That’s the clever, relevant idea that cannily replaces “They are us” in Survival of the Dead, and to express it so vividly, Romero ties his film — set in a post-apocalyptic future — to America’s storied and legendary past: the Old West

In other words, Survival of the Dead features many, many trappings of the Western genre.  Characters wear ten gallon hats, zombies are held in a corral, and the O’Flynn/Muldoon conflict is a determined reflection of the famous McCoy/Hatfield feud.   One of the film’s unforgettable images is of a lovely zombie rider, a “deadhead” woman on horseback, racing the perimeter of Plum Island, a mysterious, silent sentinel.

What’s the point?  We were killing each other over petty disputes in the Old West, and we’re still killing each other over petty disputes today, a hundred years later…only with bigger, more lethal weapons.  Look at the political rhetoric we’ve seen in the last ten years, right here in America.  We’re going to get Osama Bin Laden “Dead or Alive.”  We’re going to “smoke him out of his cave.”  

“Bring ’em on.”

Clearly, Romero isn’t the only one who’s been channeling cowboys…

So the Western-styled motif of Survival of the Dead intrinsically reminds the viewer of America’s bloody past, and America’s equally bloody present.  The movie isn’t just a Western, it’s about the state of the Western world.  We keep hating the “other” in our midst  (the “libruls,” “the rethugs,” the Muslims, the Christians, the Blue States, the Red States, the Northerners, the Southerners…) and we keep ignoring the big picture.   Divisions among the living?  That’s what consumes us on a daily basis! 

In Survival of the Dead, the big picture, the ignored big picture, is the zombie plague, and how to appropriately deal with it.  In real life, perhaps, it’s poverty, the plight of the uninsured, global warming, terrorism…you name it.

We can’t even get to those concerns because we’re so busy focusing on hating Americans with different ideologies. “We want our country back!” [even though we lost the last election fair and square to Americans with differing views], people angrily shout.  Back from whom?  The majority?

Heck, “no crisis should go to waste” when there as an agenda to be pushed, right? 

This is what Survival of the Dead is about; this is who O’Flynn and Muldoon are — people who can’t put their petty hatred down for the common good and just want to see their side “win.” 

But, as Romero tell us literally, instead of listening to each other, it’s easier just to shoot someone we disagree with in the head (and yes, this is also — unfortunately — an American trend in the radicalized fringe; it’s called eliminationalism).

In one of Survival of the Dead’s greatest and most troubling moments, Janet (Kathleen Munroe again) learns a vital secret about the deadheads and their development, their evolution.  She breathlessly begins to vocalize this important information when her set-in-his-ways father shoots her in the head… an attempt to demonstrate his machismo (again, think cowboys and cowboy politicans). 

He would rather make a point about how tough he is than listen to what his daughter (who is infected at that point) has to say.   This is classic Romero, a reflection of a similar moment in the original The Crazies (1973), wherein the cure to the disease is lost to violence and fear.  This is the theme of Survival of the Dead made manifest in action.  Killing each other isn’t a solution to the problem.

I’ve read a lot of critical complaints about Survival of the Dead.  The zombies don’t get enough screen time.  Why give us a western?  The CGI effects suck.

There may be some legitimacy to these complaints (yes, the CGI is really, really bad), but the question we must ask ourselves is this:  are the special effects and gory zombie attacks the reason we enjoyed  and appreciated George Romero’s Living Dead films in the first place?  Was that all it was? A love affair with entrails and rubber prosthetics?

Or was it because the director had something vital to tell us about the human condition and the times we live in?

Was it because the director so successfully painted a picture of America in the late 1960s (regarding racism and sexism) and in the late 1970s (of consumer culture)? 

Is it because the living dead movies tell a larger story about that changing social order, and man’s folly in the face of his imminent downfall?

If you appreciate the Dead films for the reasons enumerated above, then Survival of the Dead is a pretty good addition to the larger canon, and one that remains true to the principles of the franchise, without — thankfully — again recycling the old, tired “they are us” canard. 

And if our only answer to Romero’s latest film and his question “what’s it going to take to change?” is simply “hey, we want practical special effects,” then, to quote one lovely lady named Francine Parker, “it’s really all over, isn’t it?”

4 responses to “CULT MOVIE REVIEW: George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead (2009)

  1. >An excellent analysis, John. Great comparison with Planet of the Apes, too. The long lasting effect of George Romero's films has always been his critical view of what is happening at the moment. And perhaps, what he's noted here is that change hasn't occurred. I need to check out Diary and Survival installments. I thought Land was a great addition to the series. You've gotten my interest again, my friend. Thanks for this.

  2. >John -I love this review. I too had reservations with "Diary of the Dead," but I was pleasantly surprised by "Survival of the Dead" — for many of the same reasons you provide here. This is the most "fun" I've had watching a Romero movie in a long time, and all because the director placed the zombies in a different genre. I'd much rather watch these Old West "survivor"-types than the stereotypical (teenage) horror heroes… The life experience of the characters makes them more interesting, and it makes Romero's message resonate more loudly than it has in years. "Survival of the Dead" shows Romero doing what he does best… Instead of simply fueling the fire, he steps back from the rage and diagnoses our cultural crisis with dry wit: "I think all of North America needs to take an anger management class."best,Joe

  3. >I grew up on the original Romero trilogy, John, and so I was very bummed out to find that I seriously disliked Land of the Dead. So I gave Diary a chance, and found that it, too, was pretty weak. As such, I haven't yet seen Survival, as I just don't want to get to a point at which I view George Romero in the same way I view the other George, Mr. Lucas–as being someone so far past his prime that he's not longer capable of making good movies. If I don't see Survival, then there's always the possibility that I might actually have one more film to enjoy. 🙂

  4. >Hello, my friends,Le0pard13: Survival of the Dead is definitely worth your time. It's an interesting addition to the series, and far better than Diary. Romero still has chops, and he still has that knack for trenchant social commentary.Hi Joe: We're agreed on the value of this film. I almost wonder if, at this point, Romero has decided that in continuing his Dead saga, he wants to play with form (having done a first-person REC style effort and now a Western). He does better with the Western form than the first person form, I think, because the technical challenges are different. Diary seems sloppy, and doesn't adhere well to what we expect of the form (it cheats point of view perspective shots, etc.) but Survival doesn't stray much from what we expect of a zombie western…and it works. I agree with you as well about the characters. I would rather watch these grizzled, interesting faces (Muldoon and O'Flynn) than the umpteenth swearing teenager…Rassmguy: Thanks for the comment, Rich. I enjoyed Land of the Dead, but felt Diary was a loser. Still, I think you'd enjoy Survival on the some basis that you might enjoy Battle for the Planet of the Apes or an Apes TV episode…not as a high-water mark of the franchise, perhaps, but as a piece of a larger overall puzzle, and one with some charm and even bold creative decisions.Thank you for the comments!best,JKM

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