When George Romero was able to secure funding for the long awaited Land of the Dead, it seemed a forgone conclusion that the director who created the modern zombie would be able to ride its wave of popularity into slew of excellent low-budget spinoffs. However, Diary of the Dead has not weathered a brief test of time, and though Survival of the Dead is certainly an improvement, it proves for certain that Romero needs time to work on new material.
For the first time ever, Romero continues the plotline of a character from one Dead film to the next. Okay, so Machete makes a cameo in Land of the Dead, but Alan van Sprang, a vet of three Romero films, continues his role as a military douche who robs the idiotic protagonists of Diary of the Dead. Now a loner with a crack squad of dunderheads, including stereotypes of a hick, a lesbian, and a Spanish-American, Sgt. Crockett is free to roam the undead landscape in search for something interesting to do. He finds his foil in Patrick O’Flynn, the recently deposed patriarch of a stereotypical Irish-American family who had been living in relative harmony on an island off the coast of Delaware. After a shootout gives way to an olive branch, O’Flynn introduces the soldiers to a decades-old blood feud made lethal by the undead.
The idea of dueling families riding around on horseback dates back at least as far as the Hatfields and McCoys, but the idea of staging an undead drama in this arena is decidedly pregnant. Indeed, some of the earlier scenes, such as the O’Flynn patriarch invading the house of the rival Muldoons, only to discover that their interpretation of the undead varies greatly. It brings forth an interesting question: how many people would assume that the undead could be cured or trained in a manner that would reconnect them with their humanity? It may not be done such as it is in Survival of the Dead, but the raising of the question continues a trend begat by Day of the Dead.
Unfortunately, there’s much meat to chew on. Most of the characterizations are hollow and behave in an appropriately predictable manner. When one of the soldiers is captured by the Muldoons and forced to eat dinner with the patriarch as served by his undead wife, there’s a distinct feeling that a great scene could be had. Instead, the sequence carries the dramatic weight of a high school play, bogged down by questionable writing, static performances, and uninspired camerawork.
What raises Survival of the Dead above the ranks of Diary of the Dead is the fact that Romero seems to be having a lot more fun; in Diary of the Dead, the over-the-top dialogue and performances underpin the lack of verisimilitude laid bare by shoddy editing and an uninspired premise. Survival of the Dead, on the other hand, features a scene were a zombie’s lungs are set on fire by a flare gun that somehow manages to engulf his head. It’s so goofy it manages to work.
Though van Sprang is definitely the worst choice for a protagonist to carry over, his limited range in this world is hardly his fault. On the other hand, character acting vet Kenneth Welsh has a ball gnashing his way through the scenery as the O’Flynn patriarch, wielding hidden guns and blasting away at loved ones just to prove a point.
The final shootout, which is essentially anticipated from the start of the film, falls short of expectations, but nevertheless remains fresh enough to stay engaging. Instead of engaging the characters in the sort of loyalties which make moments like this interesting, most of Survival of the Dead’s story centers around the characters pushing dialogue that either drives the plot forward or takes awkward stabs at character development. This is especially hard for Romero fans to stomach, since he was able to do so much with so little in Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead.
Is Survival of the Dead a good movie? The answer is emphatically no, but at least it’s having fun with the fact that it’s not a good film. It makes one point for certain, though: if Romero wants to continue making zombie films, he has to find himself a writing partner.
Though it is a forgone conclusion that most people wouldn’t want to own Survival of the Dead, Romero completists will be satisfied with the 2-Disc DVD set, available on Amazon for under $10.