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Never Say Die: Romero’s Survival of the Dead

Chicks have their new Sex and the City movie, and geeks have our new George Romero picture, Survival of the Dead — and we can talk among ourselves about which flick has the higher ick quotient.

The sixth Dead film since 1968, Survival is a well-acted, relatively classical piece of storytelling, almost equal parts horror, sci-fi, Western, and war movie. It’s the handsomest of Romero’s films (the deep-shadowed cinematography is by Adam Swica), and the pace is unhurried, even when the flesh-eating zombies move in. Heads explode in ever-wetter ways; reactionary values are skewered. There is, as always, an aura of melancholy at the extent of the human (not zombie) depravity. I’m loath to pronounce final judgment since over the years I’ve decided that Day of the Dead — which I found wan and uninvolving when it came out — is a far more resonant piece of work than the more rollicking Dawn of the Dead. Romero can still surprise you.

But I don’t think Survival even begins to jell.

The film has two strands that come together in the second half. The first unfolds on a pastoral island supposedly off the Delaware coast, where two Irish clans have been feuding for centuries. In a tense, tragic prologue, a group of armed men led by Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh) arrive at a farmhouse, where a father has chained his zombified little son and daughter to their beds, unable to destroy them, bent on pretending that they’re still his children. The pleading mother is shot down — almost accidentally, since everyone has itchy trigger fingers. But before O’Flynn can work up the courage to put bullets in the heads of kids, he’s stopped by a posse led by Shamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), the island’s other patriarch, who argues that the dead should be kept “alive” — or at least around. After his daughter (Kathleen Munroe) intervenes to keep him from being shot, O’Flynn is exiled to the mainland.

Thereafter, we follow a squad of AWOL soldiers (among them a lesbian who shrugs off assorted male advances) that roams the countryside stealing food and money and wasting a lot of ghouls. They have, however, a moral code of sorts. When they encounter a group of redneck hunters who amuse themselves by decapitating zombies and stringing up their (moaning, gnashing) heads, Sarge (Alan Van Sprang) compassionately blows the zombies’ brains out and then finishes off the hunters. (For all his righteous anger at torturing zombies, though, Romero can’t resist splashy gross-out effects like the zombie whose eyes burst out when a fire extinguisher gets shoved in its mouth.) By and by, the soldiers bump into Muldoon, and everyone heads back to Plum for the inevitable final battle.

Narratively, thematically, in all the ways other than mowing down zombie hordes, Sarge and his squad are secondary: The real story is the conflict on Plum, the most fascinating character not the colorful scalawag O’Flynn but the saturnine Muldoon, who insists on trying to keep things as they are in the face of an intrusive reality. Muldoon isn’t a humanist — that’s quickly clear. But what is he? Now he’s acting like a fascist mad scientist, now a villainous cattle rancher. At times, he seems insanely in denial, like those Americans who mindlessly go about their (our) daily lives while environmental and economic calamity move toward us like an iceberg. At other times, Muldoon seems to know exactly what he wants: to be a kind of slaveholder. Teaching zombies to eat animal flesh so they can continue to do what they’ve always done is a way of ensuring his hegemony.

Despite images that, er, eat into the mind — zombies still sitting in their cars on a ferry, a female horsewoman zombie still galloping over Plum Island, her eyes a milky blue — Survival of the Dead almost never snaps into focus. Even its oxymoronic title doesn’t work. It feels marginal, like an extended footnote. Romero’s first three Dead films have been so influential that his disciples have leapt ahead of him. That doesn’t mean they’ve done it better — no one has done it better than Night of the Living Dead. And that doesn’t mean they’ve done it without acknowledging their inspiration. But 28 Days/Weeks Later did a better job depicting life with zombies in a police state; the matchless Shaun of the Dead explored zombies in the context of middle-class English routine; and the underseen black comedy Fido wrung gut-busting laughs from a world in which the undead could function as domestics and pets. Even the dreadful Zombieland hit its marks treating zombie kills as camp spectacle. All have been dwarfed by Max Brooks’s brilliant novel World War Z, a collection of linked stories exploring a Romero-esque zombie plague from every angle: political, sociological, militaristic, spiritual, and cultural.

Romero was cheated out of all the money he should have made from Night, so it’s hard to denounce him for returning yet again to the well. But when I think of his two great non-dead films — the still-startling teenage vampire movie Martin and the underappreciated Monkeyshines — I’m impatient for him to move on. It’s hard not to think that the title of this film is his unconscious way of posing the question: How can I keep my series alive? At this rate, he’s on track to make Sex and the City of the Dead.

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