Monday, June 7, 2010

Movie Review: Survival of the Dead (2010)

When it comes to zombie movies, there’s no question that George A. Romero is the most important name in the genre. While there were examples in cinema prior to his landmark film Night of the Living Dead, he’s the one who set the pattern for everything we now associate with the modern zombie film. Everyone from Lucio Fulci to Zack Snyder is in this guy’s debt. Certainly he’s also the reason zombies are among my favorites when it comes to movie monsters, and I spent a great deal of my teenage years enjoying his classic trilogy (Night, Dawn, and Day) and other outstanding efforts (Creepshow, Knightriders, The Crazies, Martin, etc.). At Fantasmo HQ Romero also generates a significant amount of affection, right up there with folks like John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento, Wes Craven, and others of note. We’re talking serious cachet here. Even so, in recent years Romero has fallen somewhat out of favor due to his new dead trilogy (Land, Diary, and now Survival). Whereas his classic films managed to mingle social commentary and terrifying zombie action with tremendous skill, this new batch has been lacking. The order of the day has been heavy-handed political jabs, weak character development, and truly awful CGI in place of practical effects.

With the above in mind many folks were calling it quits after Diary of the Dead, proclaiming that the zombie master had finally lost his touch. Although I wasn’t ready to join that bandwagon, I certainly had a feeling that there was little hope for getting another classic zombie film. When I heard that Romero was doing another installment in the latest cycle, Survival of the Dead, I didn’t greet the news with much excitement. Early screening reports seemed to indicate that there was no reason to celebrate, which was no surprise to anyone. Nevertheless the fact remained that it was a Romero zombie film, and therefore required viewing. I figured I would end up checking it out on video, as it would likely only receive a limited release in theaters this summer. Imagine my surprise to find out it was premiering ahead of its theatrical run on Xbox Live and PlayStation!! So this past weekend I was able to hold my own personal Hampton Roads premiere of the film : ) Because of this unexpected novelty my excitement level received a boost. For this I am glad, as I think it actually evened out my expectations to a reasonable level. Not too hopeful, not too negative, but just enough to give the film a fair chance.

Survival of the Dead, as with all of Romero’s zombie films, follows a group of survivors trying to find a safe haven amidst a zombie outbreak. This time around is interesting in that the focal hero is a peripheral character from Diary of the Dead named Crocket, thereby representing a first in terms of direct continuity between entries. He was a not so kindly leader of a military platoon that robbed the heroes in the previous film. Now Crocket is trying to get his remaining crew to a better place, and seems to have developed a bit of a conscience. We are also introduced to another situation taking place on Plum Island (off the coast of Massachusetts), where two warring clans of its population are debating how to treat the outbreak. The Muldoon clan led by Seamus Muldoon feels that the zombies should be kept around in the event a cure emerges. The O’Flynn clan thinks they need to be put out of their misery since they are no longer alive. Crocket and his crew stumble into the middle of the dispute, and a battle for the fate of the island ensues.

I have to say this movie is a tough call. Part of me likes it, and part of me thinks it’s fairly weak. Let’s start with the good. First off the story and circumstances are interesting enough. It's a cool notion for Romero to pick up the story of a peripheral character from another installment (even if it is the worst in the series), and I thought the debate taking place on the island held intriguing possibilities. At least it was something we hadn’t seen before. There are shades of Bub from Day of the Dead when Muldoon is trying to teach the zombies to hunt something other than humans, but mostly this is an original development. The setting of the island is also terrific. There is plenty of beautiful scenery on display, and Romero gets in some nice photography here and there (I’m ready to visit). The island also provides a reasonably believable dynamic of a culture that is outside of modern society. I’ve never been to Plum Island so that’s probably all bogus, but I was willing to take it on faith for this exercise. Particularly interesting was the fact that it allowed Romero to give the latter half of the film a Western type vibe, for which I’m a total sucker. Again it was something I felt he hadn’t done before, so it was nice to see new ground being broken.

Okay now for the not so good, which includes unforgivably bad CGI, weak character development, and zero terror. Normally I don’t like to focus on special effects when reviewing a movie, as this deficit can be overcome when the other ingredients are in place. In the instance of these new Romero zombie movies however, I feel it has to be given special importance. Romero’s early films all relied on practical effects, largely supplied by Tom Savini. These were groundbreaking, and in most cases maintain their efficacy to this day. I’m sure they are more complicated to orchestrate, but I would rather see a limited number of practical effects than a host of poorly executed computer graphics. They end up looking silly, and worse still eliminate any sort of scare factor that might be achieved (the greatest offense of all). Literally within the first couple of minutes of Survival of the Dead Romero uses some of the worst CGI shots I have ever seen. It was nothing short of a miracle that my good will reservoir was able to withstand it. I became worried I might not be able to make it through without fast-forwarding. Thankfully he managed to recover with mildly interesting character and story developments, but it was a close call.

It might be tempting to give Romero a pass on this due to the fact that with Survival he’s working with a low-budget. The thing is he’s always worked with a low-budget for the most part, except on Land of the Dead. Land is the most telling with regard to his perspective, as he must have had enough resources to make a choice between CGI and practical. Granted he had to use CGI to produce the more epic shots in that film, but for close quarters action he also went digital. The results were underwhelming. Here he’s back to his indie roots, and he still is going digital. It’s one thing to use it for a quick cheat, but this thing is overflowing with poorly implemented CGI sequences that are highlighted as if they were carried off on a Lord of the Rings level of expertise. I found it ironic that I was watching a film that at times resembled a lackluster video game on my PlayStation. Somehow it seemed appropriate. The fact is I didn’t want to watch a video game version of a Romero movie, I wanted to see an actual Romero movie. Fans are clamoring for a true Romero zombie movie, yet he keeps returning to the digital well. This is frustrating to say the least.

Next up are the characters. Not quite the disaster constituted by the special effects, the characters in this almost work. We’re given enough information to be interested, but not enough to deeply care. In Dawn of the Dead it is a major blow when Roger and Flyboy fall victim to the horde. Here there’s not one character that registers enough to generate any concern. There are moments that almost pull it off, but ultimately miss the mark. I believe this is partly due to the fact that the film is short, and therefore time to develop characters just isn’t there. The bigger problem however is that the writing delves too much into the realm of the ridiculous. Characters in Survival become caricatures, rendering them one-dimensional and often comical. Romero started to reveal this unfortunate tendency in Day of the Dead with over-the-top characters like Rhodes. The rest of that film was mostly rock solid so it was possible to overlook the problems. Not so in this era. Here viewers are given no positive areas in which to retreat, and as a result focus must remain on the weaknesses. For what it’s worth there are some decent performances, and I did enjoy Kenneth Welsh’s Patrick O’Flynn. In a better Romero effort he could be a great character.

Last, but certainly not least, is the primary offender. There is not one moment of tension or terror in this movie. Not one. Even Diary had a couple of decent moments! The nearest Survival comes to tension is toward the beginning when Crocket and company are trying to get their armored car on a ferry. It involves a shootout and swimming in zombie infested waters. There are good moments in the sequence, but they are undermined by CGI and some badly placed comedy. As for the rest of the film it’s a complete loss on this front. Even Romero’s trademark siege finale is devoid of any sense of urgency. There are of course a few fun visuals mixed in, but all of a been-there-done-that variety. The only items that manage to salvage the finale are a handful of decent character moments between Patrick O’Flynn and Seamus Muldoon, and a revelation about Muldoon’s grand experiment. Some have cited that the lack of terror is a direct result of poor use of the zombies. Indeed they are played for laughs primarily, and have minimal screen time. For my money the problem is twofold. Romero doesn’t establish a balance between the comic and the serious, and the poor CGI swoops in to exaggerate the problem. In isolation each would be problematic, but combined they are overwhelming.

The crazy thing is despite all the problems with Survival of the Dead, on some level I still managed to enjoy it. There are good moments here and there, mildly interesting characters, and plot developments that aren’t completely recycled from previous efforts. Under normal circumstances this would not constitute a reason to celebrate, but following Land and Diary it’s practically a miraculous achievement. After Diary many pronounced Romero as gone for good, but Survival shows that there is still a spark present. That alone may be the reason why I can recommend the film, at least to fans. You see no matter what the fans (myself included) will always be pulling for Romero to return once more with a classic. We hope against hope that he will go back to those early efforts, analyze what made them so great, and employ his gifts as a storyteller in this digital age. CGI shouldn’t be the only tool in the toolbox. In the meantime, bearing in mind the reservations I have mentioned, I would say go ahead and check this one out. At minimum it’s a better way to leave things than Diary of the Dead.

On a final note I have to mention one more item on the whole movie premieres on Xbox/PlayStation subject. In addition to Survival of the Dead the services also are premiering [REC] 2 prior to its theatrical release later this summer. We screened the first one at Fantasmo back in November, and I would strongly recommend it to any fan of zombie horror (or horror films in general). It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in recent years, and one of the scariest to boot. Watch this in a darkened room by yourself and you will be shaken and stirred guaranteed. Early word on the sequel is that it’s even better! I’ll be checking it out at some point this week and posting a review. It’s drawing the always popular Alien/Aliens comparison, especially since the story involves a team of heavily armed police entering the doomed apartment building. If it’s as good as everyone is saying, maybe we should go ahead and retire the Alien/Aliens analogy for the modern era. Now we can say Movie X is to Movie X Part 2, as [REC] is to [REC] 2. Just a thought : )


Daniel said...

Hmmm......I had a sneaking suspicion this one wasn't going to be up to par. I wasn't exactly thrilled with Diary but I did enjoy Land. Meh...I will have to rent it.

Jim Blanton said...

Hey Daniel,
You know if you have a tolerance for this new cycle, you may not dislike the movie all that much. Like I said I'm no fan of Land of Diary, but found some things to enjoy. It's absolutely worth checking out, just not up to par with the originals. I'm not sure how he can break out of this slump, but losing the CGI and spending adequate time on characters would be a good start. Maybe he should just take a break from the zombies for a while.

Daniel said...

Oh and yes, he does need to take a break from the zombies for a while.

Daniel said...

Good point Jim. Even thought I wasn't thrilled with Diary there were some good scenes and overall very watchable. The CGI has to go. I am a big Savini fan, so I am all over practical FX work.

The best character development in the Dead series, I have found, to be in the first three films. I agree that for some reason Romero has been lacking in that department.

I honestly feel that his last really good film was Bruiser. Sadly it seems to be lost under the radar of most genre fans. If you haven't seen that one you should.

Jim Blanton said...

You know I haven't gotten around to Bruiser yet, but it's on my list. One for Romero, and also because the cast includes Tom Atkins!!! It was a considered candidate for our Atkins night, but we went with his classic role that featured him more prominently. Of course you can never go wrong where Atkins is involved : )

Daniel said...

No you cannot and I had actually forgotten he was in that. Still Atkins night was perfect the way it was. \m/

Jim Blanton said...

It was perfect . . . but then any night featuring Atkins is by definition perfect!

Anonymous said...

For me, the problem with this film lay in the script. The special effects didn't bother me. The characters in this film act in contradictory ways (we have to preserve the dead, then they shoot them indescriminately). The central conflict is weak--you get the sense that Muldoon's stance is silly even to him. And HOW MANY generations have these families been here to still preserve that accent? The "rules" governing zombie behavior are pushed beyond belief--horse-riding zombies??? I love Romero's films, but these last two zombie films have are the worst of the bunch. Finally, Romero needs an editor, someone to point out where his scripts are jumping the shark. I get the impression that everyone idolizes him so much that he may not get that often enough.


Jim Blanton said...

Hey Mateo,
You're absolutely right about those inconsistencies, and it's mind boggling that he doesn't see them as a problem. I was just reading a great review of Knightriders, which reminded me of what an amazing film that is. Survival of the Dead feels like another filmmaker entirely - wish he could get that touch back.

I guess for me Diary of the Dead was so bad that Survival appears like a step back in the right direction. There's a movie in there that I desperately want to like, in spite of numerous problems. Let's hope whatever he does next that he listens to some of the constructive criticism.

Best, Jim