Survival of the Dead: Is it Really that Bad?

Survival of the Dead: Is it THAT Bad?

How bad is Survival of the Dead?  If you make the rounds among the various horror blogs, genre podcasts and sit in on the discussion panels at the various fan conventions around North America, you’d think that Survival ranks up there with the AIDS virus and 9-11 as scourges inflicted on humanity.   Or is that just a bunch of hyperbole, like the second sentence of this paragraph?  I’m  not surprised that some people don’t like the movie.  We all have different likes and dislikes. Some people are bound to like it and others not so much, with more people falling somewhere in between.  What has surprised me is the emotional intensity of those who didn’t like it, which has gone beyond panning it as a sub par film, venturing more into taking it as a personal insult. Is Survival of the Dead really that bad?

I  have been wanting to revisit George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead almost ever since writing my review a few months back.  I had some things I wanted to say  in my review, but I felt that I had to hold back in order to avoid spoilers.  This time I’m totally going to town, so be warned, this article is going to be chock full of spoilers.  Before I go any further, I should also probably disclose that I’m not a fan boy when it comes to Romero.   I want to get that out of the way right now. So you can save the dismissive cries of “Fanboy” for somebody else.    Unlike many horror fans (and Romero fanboys) I don’t carry a big tent pole for Dawn of the Dead .  I first saw it on video something like five or six years after it was made, lured by its reputation for being one of goriest  films ever made (up til that time).  It seemed just the sort of tasteless forbidden fruit a teenage Captain Midnight might like.  Except for the first fifteen minutes or so of the film, I didn’t find it scary at all.  I found it campy and fun, but not the revelation that so many other fans experienced in their first viewing.

Some fan revere George Romero as a god; others view him as a ham-handed filmmaker who peaked early.  I think of him as a nice old guy who makes quality horror films on very small budgets.  For me, Romero’s films fall along a full spectrum of good (Creepshow, Martin) to boring and hard to watch (Season of the Witch) and all points in between.  So, if I’m not a big ol’ a fanboy, why am I bothering to write this, after all, it’s not my movie and I have nothing personal at stake?  I’m writing this because in their haste to toss mud at Survival and in some cases at Romero personally, many people have been saying some rather stupid things.  That’s fine.  The very air abounds in stupid.  And for the most part, it doesn’t keep me up at night.   The things I find bothersome is the wrongess.    Sure, people talking out of their asses is nothing new, especially in a public arena like the web or what have you, but that makes it no less stupid and tiresome. Yeah, it’s small and trivial topic compared to the big issues of the day, but I just don’t feel like letting it go unchallenged.  Besides, this is a horror film blog,  so what the heck else should I be writing about?  Government fiscal policy?  The Thirty Years War?

It’s safe to say that prior to its release in 2010, fans of horror, and of the zombie sub-genre in particular, were pretty exited at the prospect of a new Romero zombie movie.   The buzz in cyberland was mixed.  Some were hopeful that Survival would be another Dawn of the Dead, others were pessimistic, suggesting that if Romero missed with Survival it would be evidence that he’d lost his touch as a filmmaker.  In short, most fans seemed to fall into one of two broad groups: those that were setting themselves up for disappointment and those who seemed already resigned to the idea that Survival was going to blow.

My own feeling was and still is this: The zombie sub-genre is full of poorly-made films, many of which still find an audience despite the lack of quality.  It is a sub-genre with a very low bar and even Romero’s weakest effort to date is still better than the lion’s share of what is out there.  From Romero I expect a quality production that will be above average for the genre.  In my opinion, he has never failed to meet that.

So what are people so butt-hurt over Survival of the Dead?   Let’s look at some common themes that have cropped up in critical reviews, podcasts and blogs:

Cowboys and Zombies?

Part of Romero’s inspiration for Survival of the Dead was the 1958 William Wyler’s western The Big Country, a film about the fight between to ranching families over water rights that stretches into a personal vendetta for the sake of vendetta. What carries over from The Big Country is not just the idea of a vendetta and some of the cowboy flavor in the guise of the Muldoon ranch, but the widescreen and vibrant colors.

A lot of podcasters and reviewers have described the setting as a zombie western.  That’s not entirely accurate.   Muldoon and his flunkies dress in western garb, as opposed the O’Flynns, who dress in a more fishmanly style. I will admit that Seamus Muldoon’s taste for the Old West,  his ranch house and its contents seem incongruous in the setting of Plum Island, but no more so than the odd Spanish style house I see now and again here in the Great Plains.     Say . . . you don’t suppose that by having the ranch-hand Muldoons wear western hats and the O’Flynns dressed for a day of hauling crab traps out of the sea that Romero was suggesting uniforms do you?  The rest of the islanders seem a lot more like what you’d expect to find in an isolated community where the economy is driven by fishing and ranching.

They will mount a posse and ride down Charlie Tuna too

Smart Zombies?

A lot of people have wined about Survival having “smart zombies.”  What’s all the fuss about?  Are there zombies running around writing beat poetry, mastering oil painting or solving Fermat’s Last Theorem?  No. We are talking about a zombie riding a horse and a zombie starting a car.

Zombies on horseback are nothing new.  We saw zombies on horseback in Armando De Ossorio’s Blind Dead movies.  Yes, I know that by showing a zombie on horseback Romero seems to violate the rules he set down in his previous movies, at least at first blush; but to be fair all Romero zombies are not equal.  In Night of the Living Dead, the Cemetery Zombie shows the ability to improvise and use tools by trying to smash a car window with a rock after trying to open a car door.  No other zombie in Night showed that level of intelligence.  Dawn of the Dead ’s Flyboy shows the other zombies the way past a fake wall to the hiding place he and the other survivors set up earlier.  In Day of the Dead there is Bub, a zombie that is being taught, uses tools including a gun.  Again, Bub is the exception.  Lastly, there is Land of the Dead ‘s Big Daddy, who is probably the smartest zombie yet.  He actually teaches other zombies to use tools!  Compared using tools or improvising, staying on a horse or turning over the engine of a car is no big strtch.  Smart is a relative term and until Romero shows a zombie doing my taxes, or writing a new computer operating system, I’m not going to worry about it.

Darby O’Gill and the Zombie People?

“So what’s up with all the Irish accents?”  Actually only two of the characters speak with a seriously pronounced brogue, but never mind that.  Ever heard of Chinatown? Little Italy?  Have you ever been to a community settled by immigrants of a particular country of origin?  If not, let me clue you in.  There are communities all over North American that feature a high density of a given ethnic group.  The fictional Plum Island of Survival of the Dead was settled by Irish immigrants, a few of which still speak with a brogue.  Why create this setting? Romero wanted to emphasizes the idea of an unending struggle between foes by giving it an Irish flavoring that recalls the five hundred year fight between Catholic and Protestant in Ireland.  It may have been an artistically inelegant choice, but it’s certainly nowhere near as inexplicable as some critics have whinged about.

Hatfields and McCoys?

Most reviewers compare the hate-on between Patrick O’Flynn and Seamus Muldoon with the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys.  This is another example of using cultural shorthand (out of sheer laziness) to explain something and getting it totally wrong.  The O’Flynns and Muldoons seem to be the largest families on the island and by extension the leading families.  There is nothing in the film to suggest that there is a multi-generational struggle involving murder between these two clans.  The situation here is quite the opposite.  Only Patrick O’Flynn and Seamus Muldoon themselves seem to carry any real animosity. This is not so much a family blood feud as it is two old men who have a deep hatred for each other that stretches back to their respective childhoods and has only intensified over time. Their venom isn’t aimed at the families so much as it is at each other, with both families being reluctantly dragged in.

The High Cost of Corn Syrup and Food Coloring

Outside of the horror community, the CGI went largely uncommented on by critics.  I assume that this is an instance where the critics are no more critical that the average movie goer.  Ah well.  However, within the community there was a collective groan at Survival’s uneven CGI effects.  I know how they feel; after all, are corn syrup and food coloring really all that expensive?

I understand why Romero chose CGI.  It’s far less expensive to add the effects in during post production than it is to keep a crew on set or on location to set up the effects shot; even if you can get it every one of them right on the first take.  On the small budget Romero had CGI was a necessity, but that doesn’t mean that I have to like it — I don’t.  I always prefer practical effects to CGI. On this particular point I’m with the whiners.

Not all the CGI effects are badly done.  Not all the badly done CGI effects lack entertainment value.  One zombie is dispatched when a fire extinguisher in fired off in his mouth sending brain bits and eye balls popping from his eye sockets.  It looked silly but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it.  The make-up and practical effects, like the CGI, are uneven.  Some of the make-up and appliances, such as the undead Mrs. Muldoon,  are Bub-worthy, with others, such as some of the corralled zombies at the end of the movie, looking like bad haunted house make-up.

Fizzzzzz!

George and his Heavy-handed Message

Yeah, it’s time to drag out this old chestnut.  I’ve heard people say that Romero’s films all have a message, usually socio-political, and that he shoves it in your face. I suspect this is one of those things people repeat without giving it much forethought.  Sure, some of Romero’s movies have a message, some with a stronger message than others. Often Romero has something to say that we don’t want to hear.  I think that is why people are so sensitive about what he has to say.

Night of the Living Dead had as its underlying theme that racism, segregation and infighting were ultimately self-defeating, which in 1968 was a radical thing to say.  A lot of people at the time didn’t want to hear it. In Dawn of the Dead, there is a leitmotif that sings of America as a land of mindless consumer whores who will be devoured by our own excesses. * That was the last thing we Americans want to hear.  In Day of the Dead, we see government authority fall on its face and everyone dies.  In the feel good, upbeat go-go Eighties, this downer was out of step with the mood of the nation.  We were more interested if fighting for our right to part-tay!  In Land of the Dead, Romero points out the excesses of the capitalist system, again, a message most Americans don’t want to hear, even now after the near collapse of the world banking system, much less back in 2005 when the economy was flying high, fueled on real estate fraud and ponzi schemes.

So what was Romero’s message in Survival of the Dead?  Well, for a guy who is supposed to hammer it home with no subtly at all, critics and bloggers were certainly all over the place interpreting this one.  I heard that the message of Survival was about keeping the dead alive, or that it is about dead being more human that the living, that it’s about the evolution of the dead as a new intelligent species, that its about teaching them to eat something other than people, etc.  One panel discussion  leader at a recent fan convention even suggested in a passing remark that the message of Survival of the Dead was that the internet is bad.  Apparently Romero needs to push harder.

In case you’re curious, Romero has stated that the idea behind Survival of the Dead was to critique the increasing intolerance and extremism in our national dialogue.  People of goodwill with differing positions no longer debate. Rather we have slid, especially since 9-11, into a national shouting match.  This can also be extrapolated outward to our foreign policy.  It’s about irreconcilable forces locked in conflict.  I’ve yet to read a review which discusses the meaning of the film beyond its surface.  Most of the reviews have contented themselves with being snarky and oddly self-congratulatory.

As always, with Romero,  beneath the surface there lurks the idea that authority, particularly authority derived from force is not to be trusted.  In the end authority by  force fails and drags the rest of humanity down with them.  This is a consistent feature of Romero films and is a warning that people should take to heart.

Yet again the same letter from Publisher's Clearing House

Now and Then

Survival is a very different film from Night, Dawn, Day and even Land.  I think that many fans were expecting one thing and got another.  What makes the first three Dead films special?  Each movie set a new standard in horror and in the zombie sub-genre.  Night of the Living Dead was a transition point from the Hammer Era of gothic horror to the modern horror film.  It’s also the first appearance of flesh eating walking dead.  Dawn of the Dead pushed the boundaries in gore and solidified the flesh-eating ghoul in popular culture.  Both share, in my opinion, a weird nightmare quality that normally isn’t in American horror films.  The acting, audio engineering and visuals in both films stray from the realism that marks US films.

I think that the surreal nightmarey quality in Night and Dawn is one reason that Italian horror filmmakers leapt on the Romero style zombie, like a dingo on a gravy coated baby.  Zombies, as Romero conceived them, needed no big backstory and are, compared to other monsters, inexpensive to produce.  What is called for was plenty of atmosphere and visual flair,  two areas in which the Italian film industry traditionally excelled.

Day of the Dead is the high water mark for zombie and gore effects.   There are no zombies the equal of Bub in the first three films and the goriness of the scene in which Captain Rhodes gets pulled apart like so much human monkey bread for zombies is downright iconic.  In Day, make-up maestro Tom Savini goes far beyond the blue-grey zombies of Dawn, setting a new and gruesome benchmark for zombie effects.  Survival lacks the surreal nightmarish quality of the first two Dead films, nowhere approaches the gruesome and wonderful effects of Day of the Dead.

Something Seems to be Missing

The first three Dead movies do have something that Survival lacks – the underlying layer of zombie tension.  In most zombie films beginning with Night of the Living Dead, and masterfully done in both Dawn and Day, is the feeling that a zombie can and will come quietly shuffling up behind you the moment your guard is down and apply the toothy neck kiss.  Once you’re bit, you’re royally hosed.  Even a little nibble is sufficient punch your ticket for the crossing of the river Styx.  Even if you could wade through a horde of the living dead, kicking zombie ass like, I dunno, some sort of great zombie ass kicking machine, one of them is going to get lucky and take a little nip out of you.  Once that happens it’s all over, you have three days at most until you die.  Layered over that is the tension between the survivors, which invariably comes to an explosive head and ends up getting everyone killed.

In Survival, the zombies are less of a direct threat than in any previous Romero film.  The focus here is placed on the inevitable showdown with Seamus Muldoon.  This affects the pace of the film, causing it to drag in the middle  before building to the conclusion.

The Real Horror

If not from zombies, from where does the horror come?  It comes from the people.  Survival of the Dead is a story about bad people.  The protagonists are bad.  The villain is worse. The  heroes (more or less) of the piece are Sarge Crocket and Patrick O’Flynn both of whom have been up to no good.  Crocket and his little band of AWOL Nation Guardsmen have been busily robbing people on the highways.  Meanwhile, O’Flynn has posted a video on the internet enticing people to come to Plum Island which is accessible from the harbor that he is using to trap and rob people before sending them on their way to the island.  This serves two purposed for O’Flynn; one, it provides him a steady steam of victims; two, sending people over to Plum Island will hopefully be irritating to Seamus Muldoon.  O’Flynn knows that the island isn’t the zombie free environment he claims it is, but that doesn’t stop him.

As bad as Crocket and O’Flynn are, they are nothing compared to Seamus Muldoon.  Muldoon views the island and all on it as connected himself in a very personal and parochial way. Muldoon fancies himself the divinely anointed  boss of the island.  Apparently this is not a new conceit on his part; which has suddenly found room to flourish with the collapse of civilization, but a deeply rooted belief that life, order and the livelihoods of all on the island depend on him and his good graces.   And for many on the island that is apparently the case, at least as far as their livelihoods are concerned.  Muldoon is a self-righteous bully who views the world around him as existing to suit his purposes.  The horror is that in a world where the dead walk, even in death those who live on the island are not free from this man’s will.

When Crocket and company land on Plum they find the mailman, dead and walking and chained to a mailbox post, where he will deliver the same letter over and over again until the flesh melts from his bones.  Across the yard from the mailbox and its grim letter carrier is an old woman, also one of the living dead, also chained, where she will push a crude wheelbarrow until she rots away. Later we see Muldoon’s wife, undead and chained to something in the kitchen.  She looks no happier now than they she probably did when she was alive.  Not even in death are they able to escape him.  For me, that is the true horror of Survival of the Dead, the idea that even in death you will not be allowed out from under the boot.  Muldoon tries to justify his action in terms of piety or humanitarianism, but that falls flat.  All those people that O’Flynn robbed and sent to the island ended up murdered at Muldoon’s bidding.  Even the undead islanders, whom he claims to be trying to save, are wantonly gunned down when they fail to suit Muldoon’s purpose.  Muldoon claims to be doing God’s work.  If by God’s work he means reserving for himself the power of life and death then perhaps he’s onto something.

One other scene that I found chilling came early on in the film.  It’s the scene in which Crocket and his pals stumble upon a few rednecks camping the woods.  After a brief firefight that ends with the rednecks surrendering, Crocket hears  strange noises coming from nearby.  Quizing the rednecks, one explains that “ We was  jes havin’ some fun  . . . the things out there . . . they was chasin’ us.  So we did somethin’ about it!”  Crocket steps away to find eight animated severed heads on a post.  The effect is done in CGI and looks kind of cheesy. The thing that turned my blood cold wasn’t the idea of animated severed zombie heads, but the incongruity of all eight  heads being African-American.  What are the chances that there were eight African-American zombies, and only African-American zombies, running around in the woods with which  these guys could  “have some fun?”  The chances would be fairly small, I’d wager.  I came away with the impression that they weren’t undead until after they were decapitated.

He's like Mothera Teresa . . . with a gun!

Horsing Around

Muldoon’s men spent a large part of the movie trying to get the zombies to eat animals other than people, to avail.  Muldoon, obsessed with the idea, believing that teaching zombies to eat something other than people would vindicate him in the end.  Eventually a zombie (Jane, the zombie that rides a horse earlier in the film) takes a chunk out of her beloved horse.  This is played up as a big revelation by her twin sister, who not five minutes earlier has  her hand nearly bitten in half by the same zombie.  There is a voice over by Crocket just before the end of the movie where he wonders aloud about what might happen if the living dead could be taught to eat something other than people, before cutting to a scene in which a handful of zombies shown chowing down on a horse.

Does that mean Muldoon was right?  I rather doubt it.  Jane bites her sister, then bit her pet horse.  Rather than underlining the idea of zombies being taught to eat something else, it suggests to me that a zombie’s definition of that is edible can be expanded rather than shifted.  Remember the bug eating zombie in Night of the Living Dead?  The zombies eating the horse at the end had to other choice as it seems that everyone else on the island was dead.  But even if Muldoon was right, his motives and means cannot justify his ends, no matter how successful.

Further, after Janet O’Flynn is bitten by her sister, she is gunned down by her dying, raving father, Patrick O’Flynn, who yells to Crocket and pals, “She said I wasn’t strict enough to shoot one of me own!  There! I did it, didn’t I?”  This reminds us that in O’Flynn’s argument with Muldoon, it didn’t matter who was right; what mattered was who won.  So why does Romero muddy up the waters at the end?  He has to make Muldoon’s position within the framework of the story at least somewhat tenable and make O’Flynn’s motives somewhat questionable or the underlying message of the film gets totally undermined.

Survival of the Dead’s final scene,  O’Flynn and Muldoon meet, as zombies on a hill top framed by the moon, still attempting to kill each other, firing empty guns, standing apart like the pistol duels of old.  It’s a scene that drives the movie home most effectively in my opinion.

A Matter of Timing

When I reviewed Survival of the Dead, I talked a bit about how the expectations for the film by some fans was unreasonable.  I felt that quite a few people went into it thinking that Romero was going to make an epic zombie film.  In fact, I think that folks have been hoping for that since Land of the Dead and with every new zombie movie that Romero makes, it has become apparent that there will be no Avatar of the Dead, if you pick up what I’m laying down here.  Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead were films that introduced new concepts into the genre.     Both films are technically deficient compared to most Hollywood fare, which is understandable given the resources with which Romero had to work.  Again the greatness of these films lay not in the execution alone but in the ideas behind them.  Comparing apples to apples, Dawn of the Dead (2004) is certainly a better made and slicker film.  It’s technically superior and has far better production values than Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.  It’s also derivative, soulless and commercial. In some ways it’s the antithesis of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.  None-the-less, people,  myself included, ate it up.  It’s the sort of fast paced, slick zombie film that most people want to see.  It’s also the sort of movie that George A. Romero will probably never make.  Why? Because that is not what George A. Romero does, expecting him to make that sort of movie is unrealistic.

The other thing at work against Romero now, as I mentioned in the review, is that Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead were the biggest fish in the pond in their day.  There weren’t very many zombie movies made in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  In the last few years the floodgates have opened.  In the decade between the release of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead there were about twenty-five zombie movies released, most of them not very good.  In 2009 alone, there were more than sixty zombie movies released, many of them quality films.  The sub-genre has caught up with Romero, who continues to make the films he’s always made — now, so is everyone else.

Lastly, I think a lot of fans are suffering from zombie fatigue.  With so many zombie films coming out, it’s kind of hard to savor them.  I mean, how many headshots, dismemberments and staggering actors in gray grease paint and wearing white contacts can you stand?  I suspect that a bit of this fatigue has hurt fan support for Survival of the Dead. If Romero had started making his second round of zombie films in 2000, rather than 2005, they probably would have done far better with fans and casual zombie film goers.

What does it all Mean?

It means that you must like Survival of the Dead or you’re a bad person with terrible taste and I will make my life’s mission to make you love this freakin’ movie. . .   I’m kidding, of course.  I thought it was an entertaining little film and certainly one that I’ll revisit in the future from time to time. As I said in the beginning, the most surprising thing was the intensity of the negative reaction some fans and many critics directed toward Survival of the DeadSurvival of the Dead is not a technically deficient film, aside from some poor to middling CGI, so I figured that it might be good to take a step back and look at the film again, and put it and the complaints some fans and critics have tossed out there into something like context.

Bonus Points:

Here are some random stupid or erroneous comments made by critics:

How come the internet still works (after the zombie apocalypse)?
By design.  The internet was designed to be a command and control and pornography distribution system that could still function in the event of a nuclear attack. Ever been in a server farm?  No?  They have their own back-up power supplies and redundant connections.  They’re pretty robust.

A lesbian soldier exists only to taunt the men with her untouchable hotness.
No, just to taunt you.  Spend less time being pithy and more time being accurate.

Two Irish clans have been feuding for centuries
No.  Nowhere in the movie is that even suggested, much less stated outright.

All have been dwarfed by Max Brooks’s brilliant novel World War Z, a collection of linked stories exploring a Romero-esque zombie plague from every angle: political, sociological, militaristic, spiritual, and cultural.
Your critique of this movie is terrible compared to the paintings of Van Gough.  See what I did there?

But if Romero is in fact after anything topical here, it’s unclear.
Did you not hear?  The internet is bad!

But after you’ve seen, oh, I dunno, 20 or 30 zombie movies, you sort of stop caring very much, unless something new is going on, as in “Zombieland.”
Yeah, because buddy road movie + zombies = original idea.

The Muldoons keep their zombies penned up — like livestock, only dead — in an effort to teach them to eat something other than people, until a cure can be found. It’s kind of sweet, really. Naive, but sweet.
That comment is the gold standard of WTF.

*That is what the word on the street is at any rate.  I first saw Dawn of Dead as a teen back in nineteen eighty-four.  This was the golden age of the shopping mall.  At the time it was the center of suburban life with teens hanging out in the arcade and food court, the elderly staking out the park benches near the fountain, middle-aged housewives jog-walking in groups of two or three up and down the mall, and people of all kinds meeting, shopping and eating.  The idea that the survivors in Dawn would hole up in a shopping mall seemed totally obvious to me at the time.  Further, I was aware that Dawn was a low budget film and confining most of the action to one location was, as far as I figured,  probably as much of a mercenary decision as an artistic one.

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