Searching for Brains
By Matt Connolly
Survival of the Dead
Dir. George A. Romero, U.S./Canada, Magnolia Pictures
So much allegorical baggage has been heaped upon George A. Romero’s army of walking corpses over the last four decades, it’s little wonder their decaying legs haven’t collapsed under the weight. The hollow dream of domestic consumerism; the ambivalences of scientific experimentation; the challenges of multiculturalism; the dehumanizing effects of the class-stratified state—Romero’s franchise has left few zeitgeist stones unturned. It is worth noting upfront that this is a real achievement. Though the films have taken some precipitous dips in quality over the years— fans more die-hard than I can argue about when the sell-by date came and went—Romero has consistently used his zombie-ravaged world as a stage upon which to tackle hot-button issues with an honest, if not always subtle, sense of inquiry. The undead themselves have proven fertile ground for exploring human identity and value, often circling back to that inevitable moment when a character is forced to bash in the skull of some dead-eyed monster who, in physical appearance and perhaps in mental capacity, remains a family member or friend. One of Romero’s more intriguing moves in the later Dead films was the way he began to frame the zombies not just as loose packs of flesh-eaters but as quasi-victims of the topsy-turvy world their presence created. Day of the Dead (1985) found them the subject of domesticating mental testing, while Land of the Dead (2005) featured dystopian pleasure dens where humans threw the undead into barb-wire pits and bet on which could consume their human prey first. We may fear these id-driven creatures, but as Romero insists, don’t be fooled: he has seen the enemy, and it is inevitably ourselves.
Indeed, Romero’s Dead movies, especially the early ones, are notable for the extent to which the most complicated issues derive not from the monsters themselves, but the way in which their chaotic presence pushes individuals to confront the social pressures and prejudices they otherwise manage to control. Revisiting Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), I was consistently struck by how rarely the zombies seemed to appear. Instead, Romero traps his disparate groups of survivors in confining and ideologically fraught spaces—a country house, a shopping mall—and observes how extreme circumstances push individuals to heroism or cowardice, and communities to harmony or implosion. Of course, this sociological analysis gets mixed in with a healthy dose of blood splattering, intestine chewing, and all-around action-horror madness. It’s this tension that makes a movie like Dawn so fascinating: the way a guns-blazing zombie beat down rubs narrative elbows with an ambivalent montage of mall-culture delights. Still, I cannot help but speculate that, in his heart of hearts, Romero wants us to walk away with our minds buzzing more than our stomachs heaving. His films are too forceful in their socially charged imagery and too insistent on the racial and gender politics of its mini-communities to be seen as anything other than the product of a fully self-aware auteur on a mission.
But this combination of factors—the high-wire balance of pulpy political commentary and bloody thrills; the assumed ambitions and pretensions of the films’ creator; the sheer amount of time that Romero has returned to the well—have lately resulted in works that, while not lacking in enthusiasm, feel at once more coarsely obvious and oddly navel-gazing. In place of Night and Dawn’s fraught group of civilians, we have been given cantankerous but generic gangs of soldiers and mercenaries. Rather than Dawn’s teasing commentary on the pleasures and perils of the late-1970s “good life,” we are subjected to fairly obvious condemnations of runaway militarism and corporate greed. (Dennis Hopper, as Land’s shark of a corporate tycoon, sneering that his organization “does not negotiate with terrorists” deserves some kind of place in the “Laziest Bush Bashing” hall of fame.) At the same time, the films have grown more invested in furthering the zombie mythology itself, exploring how they learn and adapt along with their human prey. This makes sense to a point. Six movies in, viewers naturally would become a bit more curious about seeing what makes the monsters tick, especially given that Romero has pointedly never offered an explicit reason why the dead began to walk in the first place. Still, there’s something a little dispiriting about this inward turn, a sense that Romero has begun to value the universe he has created more than its nervy interactions with the outside world.
Survival of the Dead displays the ramping up of this hermetic quality—only here it is coupled with a newfound weightlessness rarely before felt in Romero’s work. He carts old the same tropes and situations (the killing of a friend before they become zombie-fied; the internecine fights among a gaggle of survivors; the late-film corpse pig-out by an army of ravenous flesh-eaters), but treats them with a flippancy that borders on disinterest. Even more disappointing, the “fresh” elements introduced here have the same lackadaisical air. We pick up where Diary of the Dead (2007) left off, following a band of ragtag soldiers led by Sarge “Nicotine” Crocket (Alan Van Sprang) as they attempt to escape the zombie hordes in a stolen armored truck. They hear of a potential secure location on Plum Island, Delaware, and ride off in the hopes of safe haven. What they don’t know is that the island not only has its own zombie issues but has also been the site for generations of bitter familial struggle between the O’Flynn’s and the Muldoons. The crew encounters the sneaky codger Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Walsh) on the mainland, having been kicked off the island for wanting to shoot the zombies rather than follow the plan of rival Shamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) to condition them into domestic servitude. Together, they return to Plum Island, where Sarge and company become embroiled in the ever-escalating tensions between the families.
The air-lifting of twee family rivalry and vague Western iconography—six-shooters and ten-gallon hats predominate on Plum Island—into the Dead franchise rouses some initial curiosity, but it’s ultimately just that: a stirring of the pot with no discernible vision or purpose. Indeed, both the film’s isolated setting and deployment of anachronistic ethnic squabbling foster the sense of jokey, poky irrelevance that permeates Survival. Time has always been a relative concept in the Dead franchise. Spanning a matter of narrative days while being made over several decades, the films have stubbornly insisted on their own internal timeline while winkingly updating their look and concerns to fit the historic moment of their production. With the insertion of old-school clan warfare, however, Romero foregrounds the historic past—largely constructed through filmic cliché—without offering up an allegorical justification behind it. Well, he does, but it’s as squishy as they come. Of his inspiration for Survival, Romero has written, “The world has been reduced to a population of squabbling factions, each of whom believes that they are absolutely right and the other is absolutely wrong. War, of one kind or another, has become the answer to every argument.” While we ultimately should judge a director on the final product and not the postmortem justifications, let’s take Romero at his word that Survival is meant as exploration of ideological rigidity and the violence it produces. Does he really expect us to care if the best he can come up with is a bargain-basement Hatfields-and-McCoys knock-off?
Without a provocative or thoughtful idea to ground the film, everything in it feels airless and inconsequential. Romero has always been skilled at charting the fluctuations in tension and camaraderie within his central groups, but Survival’s band of soldiers never feels more than perfunctory in their relations with one another. A particularly acute example comes in the relationship between flirty stud Francisco (Stefano DiMatteo) and fellow soldier—and lesbian—Tomboy (Athena Karkanis). He playfully offers her “life-changing” roles in the hay, to which she responds largely with sarcastic eye rolls. Nothing inherently wrong with this, but it’s the sort of identity-based friction that a sprightlier Romero might have used as a jumping-off point to consider more amorphous issues of sexuality and gender. Let’s be real: even at his best, Romero was never a particularly nuanced thinker on multicultural difference. But he was at least eager to throw ideas against the wall and see if they stuck. Here, when he does seem jazzed by an idea, it rarely manages to engage. Subplots like Seamus Muldoon’s attempts to teach the captured zombies to eat animals instead of people rarely rise above mythology noodling, as Romero seems to assume that the very act of expanding our zombie knowledge is an inherently interesting one.
Even Romero’s skills as a director of gory conflict fall prey to the film’s glassy-eyed disengagement from its own material. The zombie battles have not only developed a rote quality over time but here exude a certain who-cares jauntiness that grows pretty wearisome. Romero seems more interested in finding the occasionally clever way of splitting someone’s skull open than crafting genuine suspense or terror. He can still surprise us now and then, reminding us of the masterful compositions and editing that make his marauding creatures feel so frighteningly omnipresent. A shot/reverse shot conversation between the duplicitous Patrick O’Flynn and Sarge seems headed for violence when O’Flynn whips out a long fork and lunges it off-screen. Romero cuts to a shocked Sarge, who waits a second before realizing that the attack left him unscathed but efficiently dispatched the unseen zombie lurking behind him. Even here, though, the “gotcha” overrides all other concerns. His films have never been without humor, but this might be the first Dead movie when the jokes don’t leaven the tension so much as supplant it.
No Dead film has ever been a complete waste of time, and Survival has stray images that remind you of the formidable talent at the helm, such as when Romero patiently tracks an endangered character through a richly shadowed forest. And few directors could make a zombie woman riding on horseback across a misty field at once absurd and oddly poetic. But even the wisps of allegorical possibility in Survival aren’t enough to make one want to delve in and consider them further. But Romero does; he has been quoted as saying that he wants to make two more films, each following a different character from the original Diary group. I would never write off a director like Romero, who perhaps will surprise us yet again. Yet I cannot help but view his franchise like the many zombie-bite victims within them: quickly devolving into a shell of itself, desperate to be put out of its misery before the transformation is complete. And there is Romero, refusing to pull the trigger, insisting against dubious odds that everything will be just fine.