Survival of the Dead


A Fantastic Fest ’09 review


Alan Van Sprang as ‘Sarge’ Crockett

Devon Bostick as The Boy

Athena Karkanis as Tomboy

Kenneth Welsh as Patrick O’Flynn

Kathleen Munroe as Janet / Jane O’Flynn

Richard Fitzpatrick as Seamus Muldoon

Directed by: George A. Romero


Scattered across George A. Romero’s zombie wastelands are two kinds of survivors: those who shoot first and then never ask questions about the moral ambiguities of killing the undead, and those who seek a way to coexist with their flesh-eating nemesis.

This violent clash of ideologies propel the Godfather of Gore’s latest zombie saga, a sequel to 2008’s mythological reboot Diary of the Dead that received its U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest. Rather than pick up where he left off, with Diary‘s remaining documentarians trapped inside a panic room, Romero turns his attention to the rogue National Guardsmen who ransacked their RV. This frees Romero from treading familiar territory in his bid to launch a new Dead franchise. More important, Romero abandons the divisive “documentary style” approach he took with Diary; this is an old-fashioned, narrative-driven shocker bursting with torn limbs, devoured entrails, and decapitated Deadheads.

A Western-flavored thematic cousin to Day of the Dead, Survival finds again finds man trying to unlock the secrets of the zombie mind in order to preserve civilization. Unlike Day, though, Survival doesn’t make an allegorical statement against a military machine that’s unprepared and ill equipped to crush an unknown enemy. Instead, Romero offers a damning indictment of man’s inhumanity toward man at the cost of saving one and all.

On a remote island off the Delaware coast, two feuding families clash over their zombie problem. The pragmatic Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh) believes the only good zombie is a dead zombie. The devout Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) vows to kill to protect his undead family members in anticipation of a cure. Muldoon triumphs by kicking O’Flynn off the island.

Enter ‘Sarge’ Crockett (Alan Van Sprang) – the first Romero protagonist to transition from one Dead to another – and his troops. Sick of fighting a losing battle, they abandon their post and survive by stealing supplies from unsuspecting civilians. Unsure of where to head, they find a YouTube video featuring O’Flynn extolling Plum Island as a safe haven. It’s just a scam to lure survivors and rob them blind. Crockett turns the tables on O’Flynn, and they all end up on a ferry to Plum Island. Once there, O’Flynn appeals to Crockett to overthrow Muldoon and turn Plum Island into a zombie-free zone.

Romero essentially drops us into the middle of The Big Country—if Gregory Peck not only had to content with two warring ranchers but also the undead. This is as close as Romero gets to giving us a zombie western within the context of his proposed four-film cycle.

If Diary embraced digital-age media to stream on every laptop the collapse of a modern-day society, Survival takes us back to a time when an isolated community could easily shut itself off from the world outside. For that reason alone, Plum Island is the perfect secluded locale for a determined man like Muldoon to conduct dangerous social experiments involving the zombies. Muldoon’s intentions are noble, but his methods are cruel. That makes it difficult to appreciate the good he’s attempting. Romero stacks the desk against Muldoon – it doesn’t help that Fitzpatrick makes Muldoon an inflexible bastard – so we side with O’Flynn (played with devilish charm by Welsh).

Muldoon’s actions also raise the same ethical questions that we hope the medical community grapples with when conducting research that present ethical challenges. Muldoon comes to view the zombies not as people but as disposal test subjects. Romero, of course, never does. He always displays empathy for the undead, rarely ridiculing them for performing the same rituals prompted by stuck memories.

The conflict within the conflict allows Romero to continue to riff on how man is his own worst enemy. But he doesn’t tip his hat as to whether future sequels will find the world uniting to save itself against its common foe.

Then again, Romero’s enjoying himself too much to think too far ahead. Unlike the geek-smart Diary, which self-consciously brought us the zombie apocalypse live and uninterrupted, Survival finds Romero caught in the moment. As much as he feels for the zombies, Romero has no problems with dispatching them in truly gory fashion. This time, though, there’s a Looney Tunes element to certain kills—just as many are intended to induce laughter, as they are to make us cover our eyes. Romero especially has a blast with a ranch shoot-out between contemporary Hatfields and the McCoys.

OK, we’re seen Survival made too many times before by Romero’s imitators to consider it a masterwork from the creator of this horror subgenre. But this is an old-school zombie conquest choreographed by Romero. No one does it better. The zombies may lumber toward their quarry, but Romero keeps things moving faster than a fleet-footed survivor running for safety. That still may not be quick enough for a generation weaned on Resident Evil, but it allows Romero to maintain a careful balance between staging some truly visceral moments and taking time to take stock of the profound matters at hand.

Where Romero plans to take this franchise remains to be seen. He doesn’t paint himself into a corner with Survival – unlike he did with Land of the Dead – so all possibilities are open. While it would be foolish to think that Romero is working toward a classic à la Dawn of the Dead, Survival does what Diary didn’t: inspire confidence in Romero’s decision to bury one beloved Dead franchise in order to start over from scratch.