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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
At least until
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.