Survival of the Dead (2009) – By Cary Conley

Most of the reviews for this film that I have seen–both from professional reviewers as well as the IMDb set–have been…well, less than generous. In fact, the reviews have been absolutely terrible. So it was that I sat down to watch the latest zombie flick from the Grandaddy of zombie flicks himself, George Romero, hoping for the best but inwardly dreading what most people are apparently considering a filmic disaster.

This film, the sixth in Romero’s 40+ year zombie saga, takes place six days after the first zombie rises from the grave (so less than a week after Night of the Living Dead occurred) and only two or three days after the events in Romero’s last zombie flick, Diary of the Dead. It follows the National Guard characters introduced in Diary as they try to figure out the safest path to follow in a rapidly devolving world.

The soldiers make their way to Plum Island, being advertised as a safe haven over the few airwaves that are still active. But unbeknownst to our soldiers, there is a Hatfield-McCoy-type feud between the O’Flynn clan and the larger and more powerful Muldoon clan on the island. It seems that the Muldoons are a God-fearing clan that believe they should try to "teach" their zombified family members social etiquette until a cure is found for their "disease" while the O’Flynn’s philosophy is more realistic: kill the zombies–even their own undead family members–or be killed by them.

The soldiers decide to stick with the O’Flynn family, thus setting up a climactic battle between the two families as well as a large number of the undead who are set loose after being kept like livestock by the Muldoon clan for their various experiments.

It is very easy to see why this latest (last?) entry in Romero’s undead saga has been so roundly criticized. Of all the films, this one stands out due to at least a couple of major differences between it and the other five films. First off, this film is much more comedic and much less a "statement" film as the others. With Night, you had a film that (unintentionally) made a huge statement about race relations and civil rights. With Dawn, Romero drew parallels between movie zombies and the zombie masses society was becoming. In Day, the message addressed the military versus the civilian scientists and the possible humanity of the undead. Land of the Dead addressed class differences between the haves and the have-nots, while Diary made some commentary on today’s wireless mass media. Fans of the series have come to expect some sly commentary by Romero along with some cool gut-munching as well. While there has always been some dark humor in the films, horror fans have always been able to point to the "Dead" films as "serious" horror because of the underlying messages each film contained, thereby proving to all the naysayers and critics that horror films cannot just be ignored. Not that Survival of the Dead doesn’t have a message–this time commenting on family and again addressing the possible humanity of the zombies much like in Day of the Dead–but it isn’t a major social comment like the other films have been. In fact, the entire movie played closer to Zombieland than it did to one of its more serious predecessors. I am sure that many fans who were expecting another social commentary were put off by the increased comedic elements in this installment of the series as well as a less dramatic social comment. I, for one, was glad to see that old Romero–now 70 years of age–is still capable of having some fun churning out zombie flick after zombie flick.

The second major gripe I’ve heard from zombie purists is the heavy slant towards CGI over prosthetic effects in this film. Of course, the last two of Romero’s films have made much heavier use of CGI, technology that wasn’t available until Land of the Dead; however, the last two films were still heavy on the prosthetics and used CGI relatively sparingly. With Survival of the Dead, Romero definitely leaves his prosthetic roots and turns to the darkside: CGI.

We all know the arguments of CGI vs. prosthetics, so I’m not going to rehash all of the pros and cons. Suffice to say that Survival looks to be 70 or 80 percent CGI with only a few prosthetic effects thrown in. The CGI effects are simultaneously really cool while being totally unrealistic. There is an early head explosion where the entire head disappears in a spray of red, leaving the skull cap to fall onto the neck stump. There is another scene where a soldier sprays a fire extinguisher into a zombie’s mouth, making the chemical spray out of its ears and popping its eyeballs out, white spray spewing from the sockets as the eyeballs dangle on stalks of veins. There is also a scene where a zombie’s head is lit on fire. On the one hand, all three of these major effects scenes are clearly total CGI and completely take the viewer out of the film. But on the other hand, they are all so cartoony and darkly humorous that I didn’t totally mind. Most of the head shots to the zombies (and there are tons of those) are also clearly CGI and sometimes the blood splatters on a wall or door almost look animated. I also noticed that the zombies themselves look very slapdash. They have makeup on their faces, but many times their ears and necks look completely normal. I found this a bit off-putting and rather cheesy, quite like some of the cheapest Italian knockoffs from the 80’s (Nightmare City comes to mind first and foremost). But there are some very good prosthetic effects, especially when it comes time for the zombies to chow down (let’s face it, it’s pretty cheap and relatively easy to throw some pig guts and raw meat into a scene and make it look good).

Here’s the deal: as Romero explains in the commentary, the most expensive movie-making dollar is the on-set dollar, when 75 people are being paid to stand around. A practical effect takes a long time to design and set up and there’s no guarantee it will even work. If something goes wrong, you then have to clean everything up, re-dress the scene, and do another take. That is time-consuming and expensive. It’s much easier, quicker, and cheaper to use CGI (and I have to admit, it is pretty cheap CGI at that). Let’s face it, Romero has never been given a decent budget to do any film he’s ever directed. He’s a master at milking a low budget for every single penny he can get. And at four million dollars, Survival of the Dead is about as low budget as Night of the Living Dead was back in 1968. So we can gripe about terrible CGI, but until someone gives Romero a real budget and a real filming schedule, he can only work with what he’s got.

Survival of the Dead may not be Night or Dawn, or even Day, but for my money, Romero has turned in a fun, funny, and highly entertaining zombie film, and he did it for peanuts. Better than Zombieland, in my opinion (well, not that section with Bill Murray, which was cinematic genius), and certainly worth a look. But go in knowing that this film is a different animal than all the others.