When I wrote my review for George Romero's Diary of the Dead (2007), I admitted that I had no idea what Romero was trying to say with his film. Voice-over narration begins Romero's latest film, Survival of the Dead (2009), by a character introduced in Diary, revealed in Survival to be named Sarge "Nicotine" Crocket (Alan Van Sprang). He became famous on the Internet as he was captured on camera robbing a Winnebago belonging to young people "who were making a documentary about themselves." Read into that line what you will. Sarge continues: subsequent to the outbreak chronicled in Diary, the death toll has increased (along with the undead population) monumentally; and Sarge, still with his military outfit, is ready to go AWOL, as he believes in the "Us versus Them" war, being isolated is the key to survival. Cut to an isolated island off the coast in New England where Patrick O'Flynn (Kenneth Walsh), the patriarch of one of the island's oldest two families, and his band of kin are ridding the island of the walking dead. O'Flynn's daughter, Jane (Kathleen Munroe) is not happy with her father's behavior: as many of the undead on the island, being a small community, are all in some ways like family, Jane believes going around and exterminating them in a systematic way is wrong. Jane believes a more humane approach needs to be explored. When O'Flynn and his band invade the home of one the residents, O'Flynn is unable to kill the family's two children, both undead and chained in their bedroom. The parents weren't able to kill them and housed them, in some sense of hope. Enter Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), the patriarch of the other oldest family on the island, and his band of kin. Muldoon is against the killing of the undead residents on the island. A stand-off ensues. The result is Patrick and a few loyal followers being exiled from the island. Back at the mainland, O'Flynn makes an Internet message, and Sarge and his small band, now AWOL and looking for a location to hole up, watch his message. O'Flynn's message is an invitation to Plum Island (from where he is now in exile) which he touts as safe and isolated, and Sarge and his crew accept the invitation.
With Survival of the Dead (2009), Romero pens a literate script, chock full of humor and social criticism, both of which ranges from heavy-handed to very subtle, and also draws strong, developed, and likable characters. Sarge is an antihero worth following: he is tired of getting into fights with bands of the living and watching his friends die as the result of human error in military strategy. He is reticent to accept O'Flynn's invitation, but like any good antihero, Sarge stands by his friends. One of his buddies tells Sarge that he knows that he will take a bullet for him, but Sarge isn't taking a bullet for anyone. The viewer subsequently gets to see if Sarge stands by his words or speaks through his actions. Two of Sarge's crew, Tomboy (Athena Karkanis) and Francisco (Stefano DiMatteo), who in a poor script would provide bad jokes and an a fresh body for an opportune, over-the-top kill scene, actually deliver excellent dialogue and become enriched, very-likable characters who are genuine in emotional scenes. Even the island inhabitants, like O'Flynn don't stay static but grow and become more complex. Like Diary and his previous zombie cinema, there is little faith in humanity; but unlike Diary, Romero delivers characters who imbue the narrative with both humility and humanity.
Nearly all of the current social issues in the U.S. are targets for Romero's script. The issue of immigration is an overt one but it is not didactic. No finger-pointing here, as Romero doesn't clearly show his preference for either side of an issue. Rather, most of Romero's criticism is organic and woven into the script. Most of his criticism really only becomes apparent when Survival is over and in reflection. The story is unexpected, as the opening scenes appear as if the family feud on the island would be the setting for almost the entire film (which, I admit I would have found boring). The journey that all the characters take is not typical, and Survival, overall, is well-paced.
Time for reviewer confession. I am not a fan of the overwhelming majority of modern horror cinema and watch little of it. It will be interesting to gauge the reaction of Survival when it appears on DVD from fans of modern horror (DVD in two editions, single disc and special, both by Magnolia, who released stellar titles such as Let the Right One In and Timecrimes, for example. This is a company that I will support financially and purchase Survival on DVD when it appears, listed as August 24th of this year, along with a Blu-Ray disc. I was able to watch Survival currently as a video-on-demand selection via Zune Videos on XBox Live.). While Survival is quite violent, there are little scares to be had and atmospheric, tension-filled set-ups. Most of the action is gun play, both between humans and humans versus the undead. There are great zombie sequences, though, with my favorite being Sarge's encounter with a blonde zombie on a boat which he takes on with a flare gun. Finally, it will be interesting to gauge the reaction of fans who compare Survival to Romero's previous zombie cinema. I have chosen not do this.
When Land of the Dead (2005) was announced to be released, I was like a kid in a candy store: here was one of my favorite directors, returning to the genre after twenty years that he helped to create and also creating some of its masterpieces. After I saw Land opening day, I think I talked myself into liking it, confirming that feeling when I saw it again on DVD. (I need to revisit it again.) I was even more excited to learn that Diary was being made, an independent film after the big-studio financed Land. After Diary, I had very little hope for Survival. Now, I cannot wait for Romero's next film, whatever film he makes.