Venice 09: Survival Of The Dead
Posted on Wednesday September 9, 2009, 14:15 by Damon Wise in Cannes Film Festival
George A Romero's new film Survival Of The Dead crept up on me so fast, I didn't even know it was being made, let alone ready to be shown. In retrospect, that was probably a good thing, as it didn't give me much time to get too excited. To put things into perspective, I love Romero's first three Dead movies and I like Martin an awful lot. His studio work has been a bit hit and miss, and I really wasn't at all gone on Land Of The Dead, simply because it looked too slick and didn't have much to say (ultimately, it was just a gory satire on gated communities). There was also the fact that it had Dennis Hopper and Asia Argento in it; Romero's films have never needed stars, much less those of the knowing, genre kind. Diary Of the Dead, while not exactly a return to form, I enjoyed very much, partly because the killings were far out and effective but mostly because it seemed to be about the modern need to document everything; by setting his story in an age of rolling news, mobile-phone cameras and YouTube, Romero brought something genuinely new to the franchise, and the single-camera, mock-doc conceit was atmospheric and interesting.
There's a nod to Diary in the opening scenes of Survival, which takes place less than a week after the start of the zombie outbreak, when we meet rogue guardsman Sarge (Alan Van Sprang) and his band of deserters. If you saw Diary, you may remember a scene when the filmmakers stop at a roadblock and are robbed at gunpoint by soldiers. Well, here we see that scene from Sarge's point of view, and then off we go with him and his crew as they continue their crimewave. The beginning sets up an interesting point about the zombie attack: it's all very well to shoot them in the brain, but what happens when that zombie used to be a friend? This is a dilemma being faced on the island of Plum, off the coast of Delaware, where two Irish families – the O'Flynns and the Muldoons – have been at war for as long as they can remember. The decades-long feud is made worse by the zombie situation: Patrick O'Flynn (Kenneth Welsh) believes the undead should be eradicated, but Shamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) argues that family should be spared, in the hope of finding a cure.
It sounds intriguing, but... read that last part again. Finding a cure? For death? Some of these people are in an advanced state of necrosis, and one small boy is missing half a skull – will there be a cure for that too? It's sad to report that Survival – in which Sarge joins forces with the exiled O'Flynn to take back the island of Plum – is by far the weakest of all six Dead films. Usually, there's some wry social comment lurking beneath the surface of Romero's zombie films, but here it's there all on the surface and it's the zombies themselves that are kept bubbling under (it's often quite easy to forget they're even there). It's ironic that all the other American films here in Venice – The Road, Life After Wartime, The Informant!, even Bad Lieutenant – deal in various ways with the fallout from 9/11 and the recent financial crisis – but Romero's offering is the least provocative of the lot. As an allegory, it's fairly mild, and as a bit of pulp, B-movie schlock, it only just passes muster: the effects are weak and have the CG whiff you once would never get from a Romero movie.
Most damaging of all, the cast really struggle. Now, no Romero star has ever crossed the Academy's radar, but the cast here are very miscast in sketchily written roles. As Sarge, Sprang is two-dimensional, like a sub-prime Wolverine minus Hugh Jackman's glint and charisma. As the love interest (and the woman who reveals the film's woeful twist), Kathleen Monroe is just perfunctory, while Devon Bostick as The Boy (a kid they informally adopt along the way) gives what must be the worst performance in any Romero movie ever – can you even begin to imagine what that's like? Only Kenneth Welsh delivers any kind of nuance of the abrasive O'Flynn.
It's hard to imagine Romero's hardcore fans really embracing this film, because it doesn't even really work as a meta-western, which is what I thought he was setting out to make. Indeed, I get the impression that Romero's heart is more in the western than the horror, and I wish he'd been allowed to explore it with a bit more more money and give that a Romero twist. As it is, it feels rushed and thin, and it's not even as funny in the deadpan way that even Romero's non-zombie movies usually are. To be honest, I think he needs to find a way to recharge his batteries before entering the world of the dead again, which may be sooner than you think, and...
Hmm, wait a minute! World of the dead? George, I've got an idea for you...