Review: Survival of the Dead (2009)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #797

Number of Views: One
Release Date: September 9, 2009
Sub-Genre: Zombie/Western
Country of Origin: United States, Canada
Budget: $4,000,000
Box Office: $386,078
Running Time: 90 minutes
Director: George A. Romero
Producers: Paula Devonshire, Peter Grunwald
Screenplay: George A. Romero
Special Effects: Patrick Baxter, Damon Bishop, Jason Detheridge, Paul Jones, Sean Sansom, Greg Nicotero (consultant)
Visual Effects: Colin Davies
Cinematography: Adam Swica
Score: Robert Carli
Editing: Michael Doherty
Studios: Artfire Films, Romero-Grunwald Productions, Devonshire Productions
Distributors: E1 Entertainment, Magnet Releasing
Stars: Alan van Sprang, Kenneth Welsh, Kathleen Munroe, Devon Bostick, Richard Fitzpatrick, Athena Karkanis, Stefano Di Matteo, Joris Jarsky, Eric Woolfe, Julian Richings, Wayne Robson, Joshua Peace, George Stroumboulopoulos

Suggested Audio Candy ♫

Madonna “Holiday”

I miss George A. Romero. It has been a while now since the undisputed Godfather of the Dead departed the land of the living and, while the penny has now dropped, life without George hasn’t got any easier. I remember feeling outraged over the lack of media coverage that his passing warranted; nowhere near enough for a man of his great stature. That said, horror fans were unanimous in their mourning and, considering they were the only ones to ever fully accept his extraordinary gift, it seems fitting that they united to give him the send off he truly deserved. It’s no secret that Romero had been focusing his attention on getting Road of the Dead financed prior to his death and I find it staggering that funding was proving so difficult to come by.

This time round, Romero was planning to take a back seat and, while the screenplay was to be his own, the baton was set to be passed to Canadian Matt Birman. This appeared a shrewd choice as Birman had been second unit director on the last three Dead movies and was therefore ideally placed to deliver on the great man’s vision. Whether or not the project is green-lit remains to be seen although, in light of the devastating news, I’m of the opinion that it simply has to. You see, nobody knew the undead like our George and there isn’t a solitary filmmaker on the planet disillusioned enough to ever claim to. Zombies may have walked the earth for some time before Night of the Living Dead and, no doubt, they’ll not cease their shuffling now that he’s gone. But it was he who provided them context and purpose in the modern world and it’s his grand legacy screaming out to be honored one time for the road.

It has actually been eight years since Romero picked up a camera for Survival of the Dead and the sixth entry into his long-running series was perhaps the least well received of all of them. Given that twenty years had passed between Day of the Dead and his comeback project, Land of the Dead, none of us could have been expecting the kind of fiendish flourish that produced a further two movies over the next four years. Diary of the Dead split opinions and also struggled to make an impact theatrically; leaving things placed rather precariously as he entered once more into the fray. However, this time George had something decidedly different up his lengthy sleeves and it involved taking the power back from those clearly not capable of nurturing it.

Survival of the Dead was independently produced, using Canadian tax breaks to get maximum bang for his $4m strong buck. Naturally, this would mean scaling things down considerably, but the true beauty of the Dead franchise, is that intimacy has never been something he has struggled with. All six films can be viewed in whichever order you see fit as each of them supplies its own individual perspective on the very same outbreak. Granted, times have changed considerably over the six decades since its original conception but, topical observations aside, it has always been about one thing and one thing only. Do we have what it takes? Do we deserve to endure the apocalypse? Are we ultimately all that different from them? Okay so that’s three things but the answers brought the same grim tidings – Mankind is fucked.

It’s just shy of half a century since Night of the Living Dead clawed its way out from beneath the topsoil and, while Romero’s films have moved with the times and adjusted so effortlessly through each generation, the zombies are still doing the exact same thing they did when coming to get Barbara way back in 1968. Indeed, that is precisely what gives them ascendency. While we’re taking part in online polls to determine whether they should be shot on site or reintegrated back into society, the undead are tearing down our barricades one plank of wood at a time. Diary of the Dead already touched on the implications of social media so it seemed pointless treading the same path two years on. Thus, with outside funding no longer an option, it felt like a no-brainer for Survival of the Dead to deliver the faithful horde full circle.

The thing about Romero that makes his lack of mainstream recognition even more maddening is that he was never fully comfortable with being pigeonholed as a horror director and showcased his diversity on a number of occasions. Survival of the Dead is a perfect example of his desire to stray from the flock as it was inspired by William Wyler’s 1958 western, The Big Country and, when you subtract the creeping flesh, fits that genre far more snugly than it does horror. Perhaps this would explain the lack of enthusiasm shown upon its low-key arrival as we horror aficionados felt threatened, like our master and leader was being poached from right beneath our noses. I cannot speak for the masses but will say that I never saw things that way. You see, I would argue that the Dead series already transcended its horror origins some time ago.

On a personal level, one thing that still baffles me to this day is that Survival of the Dead is the only one of his works that I failed to clamor over on release. Indeed, I only watched this for the very first time mere days before the dreaded news broke. I guess I just figured I’d let the dust settle a little for this one; catch up before the next leg of his journey commenced. Looking back now, I take considerable comfort from the fact that I broke my duck just prior to his departure, almost as though my subconscious received the bulletin before I did.

As a result, sentiment wasn’t required to play into my primary viewing, and I’m certain this is no less than George would expect and wish from his addressees. No free passes needed, just give it to me straight, I can handle it. It would be my distinct pleasure sir. Without further ado, let’s pack our knapsacks and head straight on over to Plum Island, our holiday home for the next 90 minutes. Lying just off the coast of Delaware, this quaint little isle is as picturesque as it is totally exclusive. I can’t tell you the population as that would depend largely on who you requested the information from.

Should you ask crotchety old-timer Patrick O’Flynn or any of his band of merry men, then the number would struggle to make triple figures. However, pitch the same poser to his arch-rival Seamus Muldoon and his cronies, and the total would shoot up faster than a crack fiend on a night off. What makes these two cantankerous old codgers the authority on Plum Island? Well that’s easy – they do.

You’d get it if you moved here. It’s all too easy for tourists to point out the obvious and throw coins into the well, informed by nothing other than part-time observation, when history remains mystery. It may appear that O’Flynn and Muldoon are flogging a dead horse (more on that later) but, what we fail to realize, is that these two opposed clans have enjoyed feuding together for many generations. The Irish are a proud race and family trees tended to respectfully, regardless of how many branches wither and fall. If you accompanied either man to the tavern, got him shit-faced, and quizzed them on the rivalry, then I reckon both men would report that they get a kick out of it. As the Irish would say, they do it for the craic.

But what’s this? Has Muldoon sobered up or is the dog that bit him still getting its hair done? Could it be that O’Flynn’s Plum role is about to conclude in swift banishment? Well bite my braiiins, it only is you know. He’s been red-carded, consigned to the sin bin, evicted from the fruit bowl, exiled to the black seas. In other words, booted the fuck out for being such a cock. I say cock when, I have to come clean, there is a certain something about Patrick that does make me wish to shake his hand excitedly and pee a little in my pants as I do.

Granted, he thinks nothing of executing sick children but, in Pat’s defense, the kids’ last two school reports had been frightful. “Mustn’t try harder” I believe was the general gist and, for as much as he gleaned perhaps a tad too much intimate pleasure from putting the little rotters down, I wouldn’t wish to be the one changing their bed linen. He’s a bastard, we know that. But Ol’ Dirty Bastard made a career out of it and O’Flynn Bastard has just as much undeniable charisma. Thus I wish you well on your travels Pat.

Right then, I guess that means we’re stuck here with you Seamus. Don’t think you’re special because you appear on the moral high ground on this particular dispute. The fact remains that you sold your sworn enemy down the river for a hollow handful of supremacy, when you should have been chasing each other down it, having fake gunfights. Life in Plum Island will be one thing without Patrick O’Flynn – dull as drain water.

You think you’re going to get the same level of cross-pollination from a meat bag? So what if zombies can be trained to branch out into horse meat and do the shitty jobs even your flunkies loathe. They’ll still be brain dead and you’ll still be a bastard. And don’t even think about pulling a Patrick O’Flynn on me as there’s precious little about you that makes me wish to shakes your hand excitedly and pee a little in my pants as I do. If I were you Muldoon, I’d stick to my side of the isle and keep that distance. I mean, where are we going to find another Pat, for fuck’s sake? Perhaps we can fish one out of the water back at mainland.

No 105 lb carp photo opportunities for you Mr. Fisherman. You see, getting a bite in these zombie infested waters is generally regarded as death to all-comers as the undead can’t just let any wayward seafarer dock willy-nilly. If there’s one thing folk seem to forget when panicking their way through phase one of an apocalypse, then it’s that over two-thirds of the planet’s surface is submerged in water. Given that personnel has been so bloated since the re-shuffle, it’s hardly going to break the bank to recruit a few opportunist water lurkers is it? I mean, what are they going to do? Drown? Tell you what, next time I call a zombie brain dead, remind me the name of the next ferry expected to depart the mainland, as I reckon it sums up their smarts rather tidily. 

Speaking of ships about to sail, it would appear that O’Flynn’s been at his shenanigans once more as the Slaughter Beach Ferry seems to have acquired itself some fresh suckers… I mean cargo. Patrick may be the very last person on earth you’d wish to purchase time shares from, but he does admittedly paint a purty picture of his precious Plum Island. According to the old boy’s online sweetener, you’d be stark raving mad to pass up his offer of a short vacation away from all that hustle and bustle. No pressure but, should the brochure look at all enticing, then O’Flynn can be found sitting on the dock of the bay, wasting time. Perhaps his time as a salty sea dog has taught the old mutt some new tricks. Alas, not being crooked ain’t one of them.

Try telling National Guard Sergeant “Nicotine” Crockett that Plum Island isn’t worth convincing those under his command to desert their posts for. If this fellow appears strangely familiar, then it may have something to do with the fact that we’ve seen him before over in Scranton, Pennsylvania, if you recall. Remember those bloggers we happened across? I believe their vlog was called Diary of the Dead or something catchy like that. You may recall they were robbed blind by guardsmen while making a last-minute house call. That’s our Crockett, looking our for Crockett and be damned with everyone else.

To be fair, his squad would happily follow him to their watery graves as “old sarge never did none of us wrong”. He may be as stubborn as a mule and as prone to outburst as a bipolar beaver during a dam bust, but to Tomboy, Francisco and Kenny, Crockett’s way is the only way. Besides, it’s not like they’re run off their feet at present. 

Tomboy spends most of her time in the jeep with one hand down her panties, Francisco can ordinarily be found spying on Tomboy in the jeep with one hand down her panties and figuring out how to turn “a live real one” using his Latin charm, and Kenny’s just content polishing sarge’s musket for him as that’s how real soldiers honor their heroes.

Get this shit. He’s even extended an invite to a teenage boy and I’d lead the rebellion on principal alone if it weren’t for the fact that apparently Uncle George sent him. Now we all know that allowing adolescents to tag along is just asking for brain ache, but The Boy swears blind that he’s under strict instructions to make himself useful and I suggest we give him the benefit of the doubt on this occasion. That’s another pair of hands on deck, once y’all suss out that O’Flynn has had your jaded asses hook, line and sinker and that Plum Island isn’t quite the sun and sandals hotspot you’re setting sail for. Best take the old buzzard along too, just to ensure he doesn’t get up to any more mischief.

At any rate, I hear his beloved Janet still resides on the O’Flynn plantation, and we couldn’t deny father and daughter the opportunity to patch up their differences, could we? She may not agree with his actions, indeed, rumor has it she’s sickened by his fragrant disregard for dignified behavior, but I’m sure a little time apart has helped her overcome her shame and disgust. Tell you what, once we’ve dropped anchor, we’ll swing by and see how she’s faring up, how does that sound? I’m sure she’s chomping at the bit to fill us in on recent Plum developments. As a matter of fact, here’s Janet now and, by the way she’s shuffling, it appears she may have twisted her ankle dismounting from her stallion.

Either her pain medication has some rather severe side effects or Janet has exceeded the point of medical assistance. That said, it wouldn’t surprise me if there was more to the O’Flynn girl than meets the eye. Perhaps it’s the fact that Francisco spotted her no more than five minutes ago in the paddock with one hand down her panties and she mentioned nothing about being peckish that isn’t ringing true.

Is there such a thing as a part-time zombie or could this be the two-for-one package deal Patrick was rattling on about earlier? More to the point, where the fuck is Muldoon as I’m sure that stony-faced son-of-a-bitch would take great pleasure in filling in the blanks. And does anyone else get the distinct impression that we’re being watched?

Survival of the Dead goes to great pains lining up the dominoes and Romero is disinterested in proposing the order in which they should fall. While certain shit is black and white, like O’Flynn’s knee-jerk slaughtering of a pair of protective parents or Muldoon’s knee-jerk slaughtering of his very own footsoldiers, he positions the audience in the grey area in-between alongside our similarly undecided tourists and respects us enough ton let us form our own conclusions over which side of the fence to plant our flags.

This is a skill that I have always greatly admired about Romero as he’s never been looking to signpost the villains of the piece; whether in possession of a pulse or stone cold to the touch matters not in his greater scheme. If it’s Us vs. Them, then who be us and who be them? That’s the million dollar question and he’d much prefer we do the math ourselves.

Herein lies the film’s most potent strength as neither side has the wrong idea, merely the incorrect way of going about their business. Like any good western, high noon is only ever a sundown away, and he’ll keep us guessing on the last man standing until the final bell chimes. Indeed, the closing shot of Survival of the Dead may well be the most bleak and telling he ever committed to film and serves as a suitably somber reminder of what he’s been telling us all along.

The cast are fine across the board, with Alan van Sprang leading from the front as the reluctantly enlisted go-between for the two clans and his trio of grunts falling just as effortlessly into formation. Meanwhile, both Kenneth Welsh and Richard Fitzpatrick tow the line well as our feuding fossils, Devon Bostick comes good on his claim to be far more than just a boy, and Kathleen Munroe isn’t simply present to supply a dash of love interest. Sure, a couple of interesting tertiary characters may not be explored to their fullest, but something had to give when declining to take the trodden path and tell his tale autonomously and, to his eternal credit, it’s pretty much the only thing that does.

Sticklers for detail may find one scene in particular a bit much as a row of still animate zombie heads are lined up like a coconut shy and used for target practice when Romero has implicitly stated previously that severing the neck from the spine is a sure-fire way of putting them down. It’s an uncharacteristic move for the Godfather of the Dead but, if there’s one man who has earned the right to a little artistic license, then it’s him. Others may be quick to point out that, like Land and Diary before it, Survival of the Dead never scales the nosebleed-inducing heights of Night, Dawn and Day. I’m not about to argue the toss here, but to expect such would be a little unreasonable don’t you think? I can’t speak for the undead here but, if there’s one thing I picked up from Zombie 101, then it’s never to bite the hand that feeds you.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: It may not exactly be an all you can eat buffet, but there’s plenty of intestinal chowing down to sate our appetites and, as has long since become customary, the most inventive dispatches are reserved for the zombies themselves. Standouts here include the ingenious use of flare gun and a gloriously eye-popping effect courtesy of overdoing it with the fire extinguisher foam. CGI may be used a little too freely, but there’s plenty of practical splatter to back it up. 

Read Night of The Living Dead Appraisal

Read Dawn of The Dead (1978) Appraisal

Read Day of The Dead (1985) Appraisal

Read Land of The Dead Appraisal

Read Diary of The Dead Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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