Director: George A. Romero
Screenplay: George A. Romero
Cast: Alan van Sprang (as Sarge "Nicotine" Crockett); Kenneth Welsh (as Patrick O'Flynn); Kathleen Munroe (as Janet O'Flynn); Richard Fitzpatrick (as Seamus Muldoon); Athena Karkanis (as Tomboy)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #9
Note - While I'll not spoil the whole film, a major plot twist is talked of. Read with discretion of this.
In lieu of witnessing Dario Argento's Mother of Tears (2007), the equivalent at looking at a roadside accident with morbid curiosity, the question of the later careers of directors famous for horror films and the quality of the work springs to mind. For myself, the issue has always been how director who made their reputations in the seventies - John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper etc. - suffered from the transition of cinema into the Millennium. An entirely different attitude to horror films in particular exists that, for every good one still made, is frankly questionable, not looking to its forefathers barring remaking the older films and not providing the necessary resources and creative control for anything interesting. George A. Romero was stuck in a situation where he could only make zombie films within the last decade but it's also a question of whether the films are any good despite the hindrances in the industry that makes them. Reassessing the Living Dead series he started with Night of the Living Dead (1968) is for another day, but with the attempt at found footage with Diary of the Dead (2007), whether it's still as bad as I thought it was or needs to be revaluated, clearly scuppered him in the public's opinion, hindering his career greatly and leaving Survival of the Dead as his last film currently over seven years.
Survival... is both an attempt to recoup from Diary of the Dead, bringing back a character from it called Sarge "Nicotine" Crockett (Sprang), his small band of soldiers trying to survive an increasingly undead American soil. At the same time, Survival of the Dead is Romero's attempt at a western, following a war between two families on a small island the soldiers eventually reach - the exiled Patrick O'Flynn (Welsh) who believed putting the dead out of their misery is the best thing to do, and Seamus Muldoon (Fitzpatrick), who believes the zombies can be taught to eat non-human flesh and will prove his belief the undead can be civilised even if his moral compass vanishes as the film continues. The result, befitting Romero's earlier films, is incredibly interesting and memorable. As these two families are morally grey and exist in a never ending and absurd feud between the central patriarchal figures, the meat of the film (pun intended) is so much more memorable than a lot of zombie films. This point is so blatantly obvious its silly to bring it up compared to all the bad ones.
It's not a completely perfect film but significantly better than its reputation suggests. There's a jokiness here that, even if it was prevalent all the way in Dawn of the Dead (1978) with the pie throwing is likely too silly here. The soldiers are a likable group but they're tagged along with by a sarcastic Millennial (Devon Bostick) who is as good as them and brags about it, a character who brings to mind the concerns people had with Diary of the Dead with annoying youth adults being in the centre of the plot. Also there's a case to be made that, while its awesome for someone to light a zombie's head on fire with a flare gun and then light their cigar with the flame, it feels too absurd even in light of the Living Dead series' tone, too close to the notion of being a "badass" in the tone of an action film that's plagued too many horror films within the last few decades. Others might find the Irish accents the warring families have incredibly broad too, liable to raise unintentional titters. The only major concern in terms of the actual plot is a cheat when one of the plot twists is that O'Flynn's daughter Janet (Munroe) actually has a twin sister, not a bad plot idea as it leads to a whole issue of whether the zombies can understand and engage with their environment, but considering the fact that the Janet is never shown with a sister beforehand causes the twist to come off as cheating in another unintentionally silly way.
But I like the film immensely. The western vibe, of cowboys and the family rivalries, is mild but adds a lot of character to the film. Also far from looking like Romero has plummeted into quality, the film looks good and there's a wit to the material through either likable or complicated characters which stands out. It's surprising actually how many view this as the nadir of Romero's career as, in light of many a overrated horror film over the years, this one at least has something of interest to it despite the flaws.