October Horrorshow: Survival of the Dead

It’s October, time once again for the October Horrorshow here at Missile Test. Today’s film is an epic flop from last year, Survival of the Dead, written and directed by horror auteur George A. Romero.

Epic flop may be a harsh assessment of Survival of the Dead, but it is accurate. Romero worked with a budget of around four million dollars, and the film took in just north of a hundred thousand bucks. That type of return on investment topples nations, and has the habit of doing the same to the careers of movie directors. But that’s the business side of the film industry. I bring it up only because I was surprised to see how poorly this film did. The previous films in the Dead series all made money, some of them spectacular amounts compared to their budgets, but this one was dead on arrival. Survival did have an interesting release. It was released on various video-on-demand services before it hit any theaters other than film festivals. Maybe this impacted its bottom line.

The production values certainly didn’t help. Four million U.S. isn’t a lot to work with, but magic has been done with less. Survival looks like a straight to video b-movie, which it was, in its own way. It was filmed in rural and suburban Canada, today’s equivalent to the Southern California locales of 1950s monster fare, and it shows. Also, the effects just look bad. Among the worst modern effects scenes I’ve laid eyes on outside of a SyFy production were in Survival, including a scene with a bunch of disembodied zombie heads stuck on pikes.

Survival of the Dead follows a group of National Guardsmen (seen briefly in the previous film, Diary of the Dead), as they try to survive shortly after the zombie outbreak has collapsed civilization. Along the way, they make their way to fictional Plum Island, Delaware, with the hope of finding a nice, isolated locale to wait out the apocalypse. But, Plum Island is no paradise. The island is home to two feuding Irish families, the O’Flynns and the Muldoons. The outbreak has brought tensions to a head on the island. The patriarch of the O’Flynn family, Patrick (Kenneth Welsh), is on a mission to kill off every zombie on the island, believing this is the only way everyone can be safe. Meanwhile, his opposite, Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), believes that the undead can be taught not to eat humans. Maybe they can even be cured in the future. His vision has been clouded by the fact the outbreak has hit the island community hard, where every zombie that lurks around the corner seems to be either family or friend. Muldoon forces O’Flynn into exile on the mainland, but that’s not the end of the feud.

O’Flynn enlists the help of the Guardsmen, after initially trying to bushwhack them, and they travel together to the island. But no plan seems to go swimmingly in a world taken over by zombies, and trouble ensues. Amid gunfights and gore, the story stumbles along to its climax, the feud is settled to predictable ends, and survivors move on once again into an unknown future.

Survival of the Dead is a disappointing film. The last three Dead films, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, and Survival, have been very heavy on idea. In Romero films, there has always been a backstory more complicated than just the dead walking the earth. In Land, the focus was no longer on just surviving the zombie apocalypse, but on rebuilding society. Consequently, class tensions played a large part in the plot. Also, Romero fleshed out even further his idea that the undead could retain or even relearn human characteristics, something he touched on in both Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, and of course made central to the story in Survival.

In Diary, Romero made a spirited, if clumsy, entry into the internet age, positing a situation where a group of survivors is documenting their struggles to stay alive on video, and then uploading the footage to the internet for all to see as a permanent record of how things went down. In the short cycle of innovation these days, the story already felt a little dated when the film was released, but it’s easy to picture a bunch of people treating a zombie apocalypse as an unparalleled opportunity to flood the tubes with vids if it ever did happen in real life. In that, Romero pegged the vagaries of the internet age.

But Survival feels in many ways like the last hurrah, the last go behind the camera before retirement. It almost feels as if Romero wanted to make a film about the O’Flynn’s and the Muldoons, but was either forced to add zombies to the mix, or didn’t know how to make a film any other way. Directors can be typecast, too.

What the film lacks most is nuance. There is no subtle power to any of the scenes, no real depth or gravitas, nothing sublime, no sense of trouble, no sense of grief or stratospheric levels of stress due to the fact that thousands of years of human progress are now over. It’s that underlying sense of loss than can make good apocalyptic fiction compelling, but there’s none of it here. Instead, we get a symphony of bit players, all competing for the spotlight, and we’re never quite sure who’s in the lead.