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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead (Blu-ray)
George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead (Blu-ray)
Magnolia Home Entertainment // R // August 24, 2010 // Region A
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted August 25, 2010 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Recommended
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The
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undead in George Romero's movies retain some trace memory of the lives they once knew, and out of some sort of primal, reflexive force of habit, they shamble their way through the same stale routines in death that they did in life. Legions of the walking dead mindlessly converge on a shopping mall the way they once did every Sunday afternoon. Bub picks up a razor and takes a stab at shaving. Big Daddy still tries to pump gas whenever he hears the bell ring at the Exxon down the road. There's no precision...no skill...not even a flicker of thought or intelligence behind it: just the faint, distant shadow of a routine inexorably seared into what's left of the minds of these sad, decaying creatures. That's pretty much how I felt about Romero himself after trudging through his last couple zombie flicks. I take no pleasure in saying that either. I mean, Dawn of the Dead made me fall in love with horror. Hell, it made me fall in love with movies, period, transforming what had once been a casual pasttime into a full-blown obsession. Romero's return to the zombie film, Land of the Dead, was dragged down by abysmal writing and awkward, heavy-handed social commentary, but it still seemed passably mediocre rather than outright bad. Diary of the Dead, meanwhile, was aggressively awful. Cheap, amateurish, and incompetently written and acted, Diary... was an experiment that went so terribly wrong that I'd rather cue up some shitball spaghetti gutmuncher like Zombie 4 than suffer through that again. It's so bad that it made me completely write off one of my longtime heroes. I'm more loyal than I ought to be and am kind of a masochist, though, so when Survival of the Dead -- Romero's sixth zombie movie overall and his third since 2005 -- washed up in the mail, I sighed and plopped it in my Blu-ray deck anyway, fully expecting the worst. Turns out...? I loved it.

Let me get this out of the way now: Survival of the Dead isn't a seminal zombie movie carved out of the same cloth as Night... or Dawn..., and that's wholly intentional. I've gotten the definite impression that Romero feels haunted by the spectre of those two genre-defining achievements -- the compulsion to match the dizzying heights of those movies while also upping the stakes they set...of making the threat in each successive installment that much bleaker and larger in scope. Even though Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead are meant to be standalone stories, I can't shake the sense that Romero feels shackled by the expectations set by his first two groundbreaking zombie movies, and his later works have suffered as a result. Even Diary of the Dead -- a return to independent filmmaking after the soul-crushing experience making Land of the Dead -- feels tethered by a microscopic budget and its mixed-media experimentation. The end result is a concept stumbling around in search of a movie. With Survival of the Dead, Romero is leaning back and having a blast making a zombie flick. There's an energy and a vitality here that I haven't felt in any of his films this side of Creepshow.

Survival of the Dead is the first direct sequel to one of Romero's zombie films, and intriguingly, rather than follow the surviving student filmmakers, he chooses to focus on a minor character -- Sarge (Alan Van Sprang), the leader of the soldiers that raided their RV -- instead. The movie opens a few months into the outbreak. Rather than stand around and wait to be munched on like a Happy Meal on legs, Sarge grabs a few other soldiers and starts carving a path north to the middle of nowhere. The idea's sound: the more remote the area, the fewer people there are to rise from the grave. They're soon eyeing
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Plum Island, a sleepy little isle off the coast of Delaware. For generations, the island has been home to only two families, and it's all but cut off to the world at large. No cars. No cell phones. The closest thing to modern technology there is a record player in the meeting hall. It's like something out of the Old West, really, complete with stallions, Stetsons, and six-shooters. Like any good Western, there's also a family conflict brewing beneath it all. Plum isn't untouched by the outbreak, and the island's two dominant families attack it in completely different ways. The O'Flynns look at the undead the same way they might a rabid dog. It may look like something you once loved dearly, but it's now a bloodthirsty creature that must be destroyed. There is no redemption. There is no hope of a cure. Painful though it may be, they feel it's best that the dead are returned to the grave. These plucky Irishmen are grossly outnumbered by the Muldoon family, however, and they can't bring themselves to let go. Their solution is to corral...to train...to honor...rather than destroy. Some of these creatures are chained to keep them out of harm's way but are otherwise left to their own devices. A handful of the undead even try to deliver mail, chop wood, and cook supper as they once had in life. The Muldoons are desperate to find a way to teach the zombies to feast on something other than human flesh -- to prove that there's a way for the living and the dead to cohabitate. As each side is wholly convinced of its own moral certainty and that the other is irredeemably wrong, Sarge and the rest of the lot quickly find themselves caught in the crossfire. So, yeah. Kinda like the Hatfields and the McCoys only with hordes of the ravenous undead.

Survival of the Dead shrugs off almost everything that has come to define Romero's zombie movies. Claustrophobia and urban decay make way for sweeping, lush, and pastoral vistas. The bulk of it is set outdoors and frequently even in the light of day. In keeping with its more expansive visual eye, this is only the second entry in the series to be framed in scope. There's really not much of an attempt at building dread or suspense. That's not to say that there aren't a hell of a lot of zombies, but Romero opts for more of a gory thrill ride than anything else...trying more to make the audience scream with laughter rather than...y'know, the other type of screaming. There's a pretty heavy emphasis on action and mayhem this time around -- more than making up for Diary of the Dead's lagging pace -- and Romero does it all with a brilliant sense of humor. He's frequently sprinkled some dark comedy into his gutmunchers, but there's a lot more of it in Survival... than ever, and just about every last bit of it connects too. One zombie's head explodes after being pumped full with a fire extinguisher. Another bursts into flames when shot point-blank with a flare gun, and since Sarge doesn't happen have a lighter handy, he dips the end of his cigarette into the creature's fiery head. There's scalping. Fishing for zombies. Death by hot dog. Dick-impaling. An out-of-control axe. A zombie chef. A human bites a zombie for once. A zombie mailman caught in a tape loop. Sarge and company clue into the existence of Plum Island through an online infomercial. One of the biggest laughs comes from Papa O'Flynn lighting a bundle of dynamite, handing it to a zombie through the crack of a door, and tearing off like Bugs Bunny. Again, it just feels as if Romero has kicked off his shoes and is just out to have a good time, and that's kind of infectious. Survival of the Dead isn't exactly a zombie comedy like Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland, no, but there's a really strong absurdist streak to it all, and its brilliant sense of humor consistently had me cracking up. Considering how little tension Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead managed to
So yeah, some of the CGI definitely sucks.
wring out despite their best efforts, veering away from that seems to have been the right move to make.

At its core, Survival of the Dead is a Western as well. There's the more obvious iconography, of course: horses, Stetson hats, rifles, and revolvers. This is a film that even climaxes with a shootout at a corral. Romero plays with the genre in more subtle ways as well, though. The armored car that Sarge commandeers is the modern day equivalent of the Western stagecoach. He's the grizzled old gunslinger, and the brash, hyperconfident twentysomething that quickly tags along (Devon Bostick) is cut from the same cloth as Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo. Romero acknowledges the debt owed to William Wyler's The Big Country for inspiring the feud between the two landowners, and that the conflict boils down to pride, land, and family is certainly a Western staple. Romero seems to relish the change of scenery, particularly the number of scenes shot in the light of day, and some of the imagery is striking. A zombie on horseback in particular is memorable. Anyone who was rattled by the jittery handheld camerawork throughout Diary of the Dead should note that Survival... takes a steadier, more classic approach to its cinematography.

The living have ultimately been the villains of all of Romero's zombie movies, and as time has gone on, it's become that much clearer that his sympathies lay with the undead far more than the living, breathing characters. Romero doesn't seem to want to paint anyone in Survival of the Dead as being a gallant hero in a white hat or the sinister figure draped in black. Sarge is an anti-hero rather than the stoic John Wayne type -- more doggedly loyal to the people he cares about than he lets on, sure, but willing to gun someone down or steal whenever it's to his advantage. Romero tries to present the patriarchs of the O'Flynn and Muldoon clans as both being pig-headed, somewhat sensible, yet in some way misled. He even claims in the extras on this Blu-ray disc that he polled the crew after handing out the screenplay, and they were split down the middle about which character they sympathized with the most. I don't buy that, exactly -- O'Flynn is a hell of a lot more charismatic than Muldoon, and since we've obviously caught more zombie flicks than anyone in the movie has, there's no reason to think that the undead shouldn't be blasted between the eyes. While that attempt at being even-keeled doesn't work, Survival of the Dead really isn't any worse off because of it. On the other hand, there's a reveal near the end that really doesn't gel with the way we've seen zombies behave, and that's kind of a disappointment.

That's one of several missteps that Survival of the Dead makes along the way. Admittedly, the first fifteen or twenty minutes can be grueling. Most of the characters are awfully bland at first glance, the over-the-top Oirish accents sound like they should be shilling blue diamonds and purple horseshoes, and establishing Plum Island and the family conflict there takes longer than I would've liked. A lot of what happens early on just seems kind of...bizarre, like the aggressively lesbian soldier who comes onto O'Flynn's daughter before she's so much as seen her and is introduced as she
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diddles herself in her Jeep (?!?). There's a Hispanic character who speaks perfect English but randomly drops "por favor" and "seƱor" in there every few words. I guess you could make the argument that this is an homage to '50s and '60s Westerns too, though. Because the backdrop is so wide open, Romero has a tough time believably putting these savvier-than-most characters in harm's way, so they'll frequently neglect to sweep an area for the undead, forget to bring their weapons with 'em, or...y'know, try to hug or kiss these flesh-eating ghouls. I think a lot of it's just a matter of settling into the movie, though. Up until Diary of the Dead, each of Romero's zombie films had greatly escalated the scale of what had come before it, and after witnessing that kind of carnage...watching a world be devoured...bickering about a safeful of cash or a broad Irish stereotype being booted off a sleepy little island doesn't exactly impress. As Survival of the Dead went along, though, I started appreciating it for what it is rather than what it isn't. Even a few of the things that bugged me at first, like some of the over-the-top, relentlessly-gnawing-on-the-scenery performances, seemed deliberate and charming. The scope of the movie isn't meant to be big, but everything else about it is, and that goes for the acting too. After a shaky start, Survival of the Dead quickly settles into its own skin. Even the CGI splatter that returns from Diary of the Dead didn't distract me the way it had before. At its worst, the CGI is almost surreally embarrassing, but the clumsiest bits come fairly early on, and the rest is fielded competently enough. There's a decent amount of practical gore in the mix as well.

After reading so many intensely critical comments about Survival of the Dead beforehand and being pretty much completely repulsed by Diary..., I didn't waltz into this Blu-ray disc with the highest of expectations. I really dug Survival of the Dead, though, and even though it's not a great movie, I do think it's exactly the film that George Romero set out to make. It's just an hour and a half of frenetic fun with the walking undead. Suspenseful? Nope. Scary? Not even a little bit. A gripping premise or endlessly compelling characters? Nah. If you attack this movie expecting another Dawn of the Dead, you'll almost certainly walk away disappointed. Taken on its own, though...? Survival of the Dead is ridiculous amount of fun. It's easily the best of Romero's three most recent zombie movies, and I'd absolutely rather give this another spin in my Blu-ray deck over slogging through Day of the Dead again. My faith in George Romero as a filmmaker was dead and buried for a couple of years there, and Survival of the Dead brought it rising back from the grave. Sorry for doubting you, George. Recommended.


Video
Photographed digitally with the RED camera, Survival of the Dead generally looks strong on Blu-ray. The photography is impressively crisp and detailed throughout, and the lush greens that dominate many of the scenes on Plum Island certainly set the movie apart from the traditional bleak, desaturated horror palette. Video noise is frequently visible, especially in the shadows, but rarely to the point of distraction. The posterization that briefly creeps into the opening titles never rears its head elsewhere on the disc either. I wish that the black levels were a little more pronounced -- in some of the darker scenes in particular, the image winds up looking a little milky -- but all of these are very minor gripes, and I'm sure they all date back to the original production of the movie anyway. This is easily the best looking of Romero's zombie movies on Blu-ray.

Survival of the Dead is served up on a dual-layer platter and takes advantage of just about every spare byte on the disc. The movie's presented on Blu-ray at its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1, and the video has been encoded with AVC.


Audio
The sound design throughout Survival of the Dead tends to be fairly subdued. Outside of the bullets whizzing around in the final shootout, the mix doesn't do much of anything that comes across as particularly aggressive. The rears are generally reserved for subtle, effective ambiance: the sound of creaking wood in the forest, a faint metallic rattle as Sarge and company bicker in the back of the armored car, reverb in a fever dream...those sorts of touches. The multichannel setup isn't really unleashed to heighten the intensity of the zombie attacks, although there is a definite sense of directionality to some of them, such as a death-from-above divebomb inside the stables. I was kind of expecting the subwoofer to belt out more reinforcement for the gunfire, and instead, those cracks wind up sounding surprisingly thin. A handful of explosions are bolstered by a thick, meaty low-end, and the keyboard-driven score can pack a wallop, but the mix doesn't tear into the lower frequences nearly as often as I was expecting. The six-channel, 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack isn't marred by any trace of hiss or background noise, and its dialogue is consistently clean and clear throughout. A pretty average effort for a low-budget fright flick.

Commentary aside, there aren't any other soundtracks: no alternate mixes and no dubs. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH) and Spanish.


Extras
At least until
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Anchor Bay gets around to porting over that sprawling four-disc Dawn of the Dead DVD set, Survival of the Dead gets the nod as the most lavish special edition release of any of George Romero's zombie movies on Blu-ray.
  • Introduction by George A. Romero (HD; 1 min.): At least, Romero's trying to introduce the flick with this goofy 86 second clip, but that's kind of what you get with an undead, non-union crew.

  • Audio Commentary: I didn't really think much of the commentary tracks for Land of the Dead or Diary of the Dead, so I was expecting to be kind of underwhelmed this time around too. Nope. Much like Survival of the Dead itself, this commentary is a lot of fun...completely insubstantial but still a blast to listen to. The track piles together Romero, executive producer Peter Grunwald, executive producer/editor Michael Doherty, star Kenneth Welsh, and actor/2nd unit director/stunt coordinator Matt Birman. It's a really quippy commentary, and the five of 'em hardly ever seem to stop laughing. Some details I missed the first time through are pointed out, such as the zombified heads that the rednecks slammed onto those pikes all happen to be black, along with a couple of gags lurking in the background. Also highlighted are minor changes from early drafts, such as a pig being gunned down as well as one key speech swapping characters and being shifted to the end. Romero gleefully notes some of the firsts in Survival of the Dead -- his first zombie driver! his, well, obviously first zombie on horseback! -- and tosses out a few great notes like not being able to fire any guns one night because the ATF guy didn't show up. Looking down at my notes, I really didn't jot down many highlights, so those hoping for a detailed dissection of the movie might walk away disappointed, but I had a lot of fun with it anyway.

  • Walking After Midnight (HD; 76 min.): The same as Diary of the Dead before it, Survival... also serves up a feature-length documentary by Michael Felsher. It's a chronological look at the shoot day-by-day, and along with the reams of behind-the-scenes footage, Felsher makes it a point to chat up pretty much everyone. There are the expected conversations with Romero and the stars of the movie, of course, but Felsher takes the time to speak with background zombies and crew members that'd normally be glossed over. There's just an enormous amount of personality on display here, and a lot of that's owed to Felsher himself, who melds what you'd expect out of a making-of doc with a video diary. Walking After Midnight also really gives a sense of how small and intensely passionate the crew is. Even with these hordes of zombies, it's revealed that the make-up effects crew on-set is only five strong, and there's just one person taking care of all the hair. Pretty much everything during production is tackled: the more ambitious stuntwork, costume design, testing out effects gags, cinematography, unforgiving weather, the headaches of having to come up with a title, a prologue shot seven months after principal photography had wrapped, a gaggle of zombies trying to tear apart a frozen solid torso...hell, even Romero working an undead Muppet version of himself. It's a bit of a disappointment that the doc glosses over post-production -- nothing on editing, the CGI, the score, or anything like that -- but we do get to see the finished product making the rounds at TIFF and the Venice Film Festival. I'm sure it goes without saying that this feature-length documentary is easily the highlight of this Blu-ray disc, and it's
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    essential viewing.

  • Sarge (HD; 4 min.): Michael Felsher's directorial credits on this Blu-ray disc don't end with Walking After Midnight either. He also takes the helm of this four minute short film: a monologue by one of the survivors set after the close of the movie.

  • "A Minute of Your Time" Shorts (HD; 19 min.): Thirteen micro-featurettes are piled on here too, including a peek at the Toronto zombie walk, digitally yanking an exploding squib from one take to another, prepping some of the standout practical effects work, chatting up the cast, and Romero being handed a kind of grisly award at TIFF.

  • Fangoria Interview with George A. Romero (SD; 23 min.): It's probably worth noting that of all the bulletpoints scattered around this list of extras, this interview is the only one limited to standard definition. That's not a bad batting average, especially considering that it looks like this extended chat was produced for the web anyway. I really enjoyed this conversation between former Fango editor Tony Timpone and Romero: the first recurring character in Romero's six zombie movies, drawing deeply from The Big Country, laughingly suggesting a future zombie noir, explaining again why he's come to embrace CG after being so closely associated with practical splatter effects, how the performances here are deliberately broad, and his take on Survival of the Dead debuting on VOD before hitting theaters. This ranks behind Walking After Midnight as the best of the extras on this Blu-ray disc and is well worth setting aside the time to watch.

  • Time with George (HD; 9 min.): Romero's second interview retreads a lot of ground that's already been covered on this Blu-ray disc: wishing he'd had a chance to build the sort of running mythology that Stephen King did with Castle Rock, another explanation why he's turned so heavily towards digital effects, and comparing the difficulty and enthusiasm necessary to get a project like this off the ground to a circus. The comments are definitely worthwhile, but if you're tearing into every last one of the extras on this disc, you've already heard it all by this point.

  • Storyboard Comparison (HD; 2 min.): This clip opens with a bit of setup before settling into the comparison, which fills the screen with some impressively rendered storyboards and drops the finished product into a picture-in-picture window. The comparison's for the infamous 'heads' sequence, by the way.

  • How to Create Your Own Zombie Bite (mostly HD; 10 min.): Erik Beck leads off this challenge by George Romero to pull off a zombie bite effect for under $50$20. Around five minutes are devoted to a simple
    [click on the thumbnail to enlarge]
    walkthrough to put together the effect, and the rest is a quippy short film that showcases it.

  • HDNet: A Look at Survival of the Dead (HD; 5 min.): A lot of the footage from that minute long intro is recycled for this promo. It's more of a proper introduction to Survival of the Dead, really, with some additional comments by Romero and, of course, a couple minutes of excerpts from the film.

The disc opens with a promo for AMC's The Walking Dead with producer Frank Darabont dishing out plenty of credit to Romero, and this is followed by high-def plugs for Rubber, Centurion, The Oxford Murders, and HDNet Movies. It's a great and very unexpected surprise that Survival of the Dead comes packaged in a slipcover with some lenticular animation -- I didn't get that impression from the early images that were floating around. Oh, and this is a BD Live-enabled disc, but that functionality hadn't been flipped on the last time I checked.


The Final Word
Survival of the Dead reanimated my faith in George Romero. After a frustrating stab at working under a major studio and an experiment in medium gone wrong, Romero swooped in with this breezy, deliriously fun zombie flick. It's hardly the seminal genre classic that Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead were, no, but it's not making any effort to redefine the face of horror or anything. Survival of the Dead is the work of a writer/director that's both relaxed and confident. Romero isn't overwhelmed by the shadows of the towering successes of years past. It doesn't feel as if he's out to prove anything to anyone. Romero's just having a blast making his movie on his terms, and the end result is his most enjoyable work in ages. This is also the most lavish special edition release of any of Romero's zombie films to date on Blu-ray, and Survival of the Dead gets the nod as his best-looking in high definition as well. Not a great movie but a hell of a lot of fun just the same: Recommended.
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