• Survival of the Dead

    Released by: Magnolia Films
    Released on: 8/24/10
    Director: George A. Romero
    Cast: Alan Van Sprang, Kenneth Walsh, Kathleen Munroe, Richard Fitzpatrick, Athena Karkanis, Stefano DiMatteo
    Year: 2009
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    The Movie:

    A direct follow up to the earlier Diary Of The Dead (a first, in Romero’s zombie filmography), 2009’s Survival Of The Dead eschews the first person camera style of the film that came before it and returns the director to his more traditional, narrative style of filmmaking. The film also brings back to the screen Romero’s interest in zombies retaining past memories of their previous lives. We’ve seen this in his other films and he once again exploits that theme in this latest picture.

    The film follows Sarge Crocket (Alan Van Sprang, returning from Diary Of The Dead) and his rag-tag group of soldiers – the foxy, masturbating lesbian nicknamed Tomboy (Athena Karkanis), the Spanish Romeo named Francisco (Stefano DiMatteo) and a few others – and tells us what happened to them after they boarded and pillaged the RV in the last picture. Turns out, they’re looking for a place to escape to and they find it in the form of Plum Island, a small mass of land off the coast of New England. Pretty much cut off from the mainland in every regard, this island has only ever been populated by two Irish families, the Muldoon’s and the O’Flynn’s. Unfortunately for Sarge and his group, when they arrive on Plum Island, they find themselves in the midst of what is basically a small scale war. Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Walsh), the man who led them to the island, was kicked off by the other family for his insistence on shooting the zombies in the head and getting rid of them. The Muldoon’s, lead by Seamus (Richard Fitzpatrick), want to take a more humane approach and basically imprison them so that they can’t do any harm in hopes that they’ll be able to wean them off of human meat and thus no longer pose a problem to humanity. O’Flynn’s return to the island, with Sarge and company in tow, sets off a chain of events that can only result in violence.

    With Survival of the Dead, Romero talks his film out of the confines of the cities where he’s placed most of them and back in the rural territory similar to that seen in the one that started it all, Night of the Living Dead. The story also takes a step back in time, almost, as Plum Island really is stuck in the past. There are no computers, no internet access, no cell phones, in fact there really isn’t much technology there at all. Why two warring Irish families wound up on this island is never explained, nor are we ever told why no one else ever really tried to set up shop there (we are told they don’t like visitors and do see the corpses of a few ‘guests’ scattered around, at least) but these are small details. The set up for this picture is interesting enough, and there are some interesting ideas, but then it all sort of comes crashing down a bit after the first half hour.

    Romero’s use of CGI effects has come under some criticism since his comeback with Land of the Dead, and that work continues here, albeit in even more distracting form. The computer generated squibs work well enough but there are a few effects set pieces that rely far too heavily on ineffective graphics work to really succeed and these stick out enough to pull you out of the movie, even if they don’t completely ruin it. Budgetary constraints and tight shooting schedules or not, a film like this relies very heavily on good effects work and sadly Survival of the Dead comes up short there. If that weren’t enough, there’s also the stereotypes in the cast. Want a butch lesbian soldier girl? Got one! What about a snot nosed tech savvy computer kid? He’s here too. A man of Hispanic descent who wants to get it on with every woman he meets? Yep, we’ve got one of those. And what about some bickering old Irish guys who look like they’ve been taken out of some lousy Rite-Aid St. Patrick’s Day greeting card? There’s lots of those. In fact, pretty much every character in this movie is a cliché of some sort, and it hurts the story. A lot. Now, Romero says in his introduction that they intentionally worked a lot of humor into the movie, and it seems obvious that this is part of that humor, but unfortunately it’s really not very funny and it’s hard to look past at times.

    With that said, there are parts that work. The social commentary in the film, and you can read what you want into it, is interesting even if it is very heavy handed and far less than subtle. If nothing else, it is occasionally thought provoking, so the movie has that going for it. The last twenty minutes or so do a good job of ramping up the tension and the film ends as well as it begins. An interesting subplot with O’Flynn’s two daughters is a nice touch and one that adds some sympathy to a few different characters who were in dire need of it and also serves to flesh out the film’s political leanings a little bit more. The film is not a total write off and it’s actually reasonably entertaining, but its flaws are obvious and hard to see around. Romero’s recent crop of zombie films haven’t set the world on fire and while he’s still very much a talented and creative filmmaker, it’s starting to feel like he’s going through the motions, making it all the more depressing that he can’t seem to get funding for anything else.


    Magnolia’s Blu-ray release of Survival of the Dead looks very good in this AVC encoded 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen 1080p transfer. Shot on high definition video, the transfer is as crisp and detailed as you could hope for and color reproduction looks very good. Black levels are good but not perfect, some murkiness creeps into the image, and there are occasional instances where you can’t help but notice some minor video noise on the screen (more often than not in the darker scenes) but overall the picture is quite stable and demonstrates strong texture and detail.

    The English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track on the disc is fine for what it is, and that’s a front heavy mix that doesn’t use the rear channels all that much. There are times during the shoot outs where you’ll be reminded that this is a surround sound mix but for the most part, the majority of what you’re going to hear is going to come at you from the front of your home theater set up. That said, there aren’t any problems here. The dialogue is clean and clear and there are no issues with hiss or distortion to complain about. Directionality is frequently fairly subtle but it is there from time to time. Overall, this is a fine mix. English closed captioning and Spanish subtitles are offered, but no alternate audio tracks are provided.

    The supplements kick off with a commentary track courtesy of Romero himself who is joined here by producer Peter Grunwald, producer-editor Michael Doherty, actor Kenneth Welsh, and actor-second unit director Matt Birman. Those wanting loads and loads of information may be put back a bit to find that the participants are really just having fun here, but there are some good stories told about the effects work, the locations, budgetary constraints, script revisions and the like. They point out some of the social commentary that isn’t quite as obvious and note what they like about the film as it plays out, but there’s a good sense of humor behind all of this and it’s an enjoyable listen.

    More in-depth is the seventy-six minute featurette, Walking After Midnight, from Red Shirt Pictures. This is a pretty intense, feature length look at the shoot as it played out in front of director Michael Felsher. Presented in order, it follows the production all the way through to the end and paints a pretty interesting picture as to how Romero works these days and not only who he’s surrounded himself with but why. We get the usual talking head interview bits from the core cast and crewmembers but also input from some of the lesser-knowns, which really goes a long way towards fleshing out in as much detail as possible the whole story behind this film.

    Up next is a collection of A Minute Of Your Time Shorts, which is nineteen minutes worth of quick documentary shorts that each explores one of thirteen different aspects of the movie. We get to witness various effects sequences being staged and shot, zombie make up work, Romero’s directorial tasks, and more. These compliment the longer featurette quite nicely.

    From there, check out the first of two interviews with Romero, a twenty-three minute segment courtesy of Fangoria’s former editor-in-chief, Tony Timpone. Here the two talk about what Romero has done with this film, his first ever use of a character from one of his earlier pictures, the CGI effects work and more. Romero talks about his future in the film industry as well, how he’s had to embrace modern filmmaking techniques to stay viable, and about the evolution of the zombie film as a whole. The second interview is called Time With George and it’s a nine minute piece let’s George talk about some regrets in regards to his career, how he’d do things differently, his use of computers in filmmaking today and more. It covers a lot of the same ground as the lengthier interview and the featurette, but there’s also some different material in here as well that makes it worth checking out.

    Rounding out the extras is a brief and humorous introduction to the film from Romero, a four minutes short film called Sarge which plays off of the feature’s ending nicely, a five minute HDNET look at the making of the film that’s really just a glorified advertisement, a storyboard to film comparison, and trailers for a few other, unrelated Magnolia properties. Menus and chapter stops are also included. All of the extras except the Fangoria Interview piece are in high definition.

    The Final Word:

    A pretty mediocre effort, Survival of the Dead is entertaining enough so long as you keep your expectations in check and don’t expect a classic on the level of Romero’s earlier films. The social commentary is heavy handed and the comedy frequently unfunny but there are some interesting ideas being toyed with here and a few stand out scenes of carnage and chaos. Magnolia’s Blu-ray looks very good and sounds just fine and contains a load of supplemental features making this a package the director’s fans will appreciate, even if the movie itself isn’t his best work.