Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Survival of the Dead

In 1968, George Romero directed Night of the Living Dead, a stark, nightmarish thriller that changed horror movies forever and captured the anger and turmoil of the 1960s. He followed it with Dawn of the Dead in 1978, expanding on the apocalyptic vision and utilizing comic-book style splatter as a satire of consumerism. Day of the Dead arrived in 1985 and was set in an underground military bunker, a bleak metaphorical tomb for a dead civilization. After a 20-year wait, Land of the Dead was a bigger, Hollywood-style epic about social and economic classes and a knock on the Bush administration. Diary of the Dead was a first-person, found-footage movie that followed a few years later, a reboot of the franchise for the Youtube generation about media manipulation.

Which brings us to Survival of the Dead (2009), to-date Romero's most recent entry in the series. What I hope the opening paragraph illustrates is how each entry in the Dead series uses zombies to depict or say something about American society and is crafted in a style that makes them unique from each other and to the time they were made in. Survival continues this trend by being crafted as a sort of modern-day Western: characters wear cowboy hats, ride horses, carry peashooters, and work on ranches. Thematically, the movie is about tribalism, the petty differences that become wedged among people, driving them into conflict to point enemies can't even remember why they're fighting in the first place, only that they hate each other.  

Tribalism here is represented by the Irish patriarchs of two families on Plum Island off the coast of Delaware: Patrick O'Flynn (Kenneth Walsh) and Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick). These two men have hated each other since their days on the schoolyard, and the dead rising is just another issue for them to fight over. O'Flynn rallies his kin to hunt the dead down. Muldoon, with some religious fervor, believes the dead should be kept alive until a cure can be found or to see if they can be taught to eat something else. Muldoon gains the upper hand and has O'Flynn banished from Plum. Before long, O'Flynn returns with a squad of renegade National Guardsmen, led by Sgt. Crocket (Alan Van Sprang), to wrest back control of the island.

In Romero's zombie films, the humans have proven on many occasions to be just as dangerous as the undead if not more so. In Night, the inability of the protagonists to cooperate leads to their downfall; in Day, the racist, sexist military goons descend into psychotic, murderous behavior; and in Land, the wealthy elite wall themselves off from reality, ignoring the suffering of their fellow man as the enemy evolves and grows deadlier. In Survival, the zombies are probably their least threatening in the series (Romero has joked they're at the level of mosquitoes) and are little more than an annoyance. Any advantage the dead gain or any victim they claim is a result of human conflict and mistakes.

The Western tropes transforms the plot into a variation of the Hatfields and McCoys. At first, O'Flynn is presented as a decisive man of action, a leader strong enough to do what is necessary, i.e. put down the dead.  Yet, we learn from his daughter Janet (Kathleen Munroe) how he was a drunken lout, often passed out in his house, and how he couldn't be bothered to show up at his wife's funeral. "I was the only adult in the house," Janet scolds him. Before he enlists the aid of the guardsmen, O'Flynn tries to rob them and almost gets them killed. Muldoon is presented initially as a man of conviction, doing what he believes is the Lord's work, but he's soon revealed as a hypocrite; he shoots down the zombies who don't "show promise," keeps other zombies chained up around the island, and murders innocent people because they're interlopers to the island. Spare the dead, shoot the living. In a great final image, the two men, now zombies, continue to aim and fire empty guns at each other, their stubbornness and sense of entitlement extending beyond the grave.

In between the two men are their families who suffer and the guardsmen. The guardsmen are just looking to survive by finding a quiet, isolated place but get drawn into a blood feud they have no interest in or connection to. They were promised sanctuary (by O'Flynn) but instead found more death and destruction. In his review, critic John Kenneth Muir noted parallels between Survival's story and U.S. involvement Iraq, how an Iraqi exile provided false intelligence about weapons of mass destruction and connections between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaida and said how the American military would be greeted as liberators. Similarly, the U.S. found itself in destructive quagmire, caught in the middle of a historical feud (Shias and Sunnis) it was not prepared for.

It's also worth pointing out how the soldiers in Survival come equipped with high-powered machine guns while the islanders are using outdated rifles and shotguns. The islanders are literally behind the times, both in technology and thinking. The rest of the world is changing, and the O'Flynns and Muldoons, in their own little world, are still acting like it's the Old West where swagger and inflated pride are considered values.

If Romero continues to find new thematic and stylistic territory to explore, then he is also becoming stagnant when it comes to how to utilize the undead. As indicated, the zombies may be the big problem that humans can't get past their differences to properly address, but I also think they're too marginalized and not threatening enough. When he does use them, Romero uses the zombies for a number of Looney Tune-like gore gags - a fire extinguisher hose in the mouth causing a zombie's head to go pop, for example - that are occasionally funny but often groan-inducing. Not helping matters is some truly atrocious-looking CGI effects, obviously animated in after the fact and never looking convincing. It really takes the viewer out of the moment.

When the zombies aren't being used as the "Wile E. Coyote of monsters" (a phrase Romero has used in interviews), there's really not much to distinguish them. They had the novelty of being new in Night while Day and Land depicted an interesting dichotomy - as humans grew more violent and barbaric, the zombies became more sympathetic and organized, seeming to remember habits and behavior of their former lives- but in Survival, they're just kind of there.

Everything builds to a final showdown between Muldoon and O'Flynn, and of course, the zombies get loose and eat plenty of people, munching on intestines and chomping on necks. There are also few tragic ironies, but compared to the powerful ending of Night, the exciting biker raid in Dawn, and the claustrophobic carnage of Day, the climax of Survival comes off as forced and weak.

Survival of the Dead is not a total write-off. As in his other pictures, Romero offers plenty of socio-political subtext to analyze and discuss, and I admire his willingness to experiment with the genre by incorporating Western motifs, but unless he can find a way to make his zombies scary again, I hope he moves on to different material.

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