George A. Romero’s new zombie movie—the sixth in a series that began as long ago as 1968 with “Night of the Living Dead”—is a distinct improvement over the last, the scruffy, silly, pretentious “Diary of the Dead.” But it’s still too little—and, as is becoming increasingly clear as the franchise winds down, too late.
“Survival of the Dead” is a sequel to “Diary,” but it leaves behind the cinema verite style of that movie in favor of a more conventional approach. The hero, if you can call him that, is a holdover from that picture. He’s Sarge (Alan Van Sprang), the leader of a ragtag bunch of military deserters who hassled the students who starred in the previous flick. Here, after linking up with a young man (Devon Bostick) with an Internet connection, he learns of a video invitation to survivors to come to a Delaware port and embark for Plum Island, the home of the “Captain” sending the message.
What we already know, but Sarge and his band do not, is that the invitation comes from O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh), the patriarch of his clan, who’s been expelled from the island by Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), the leader of the rival family, over differences in approach to their local island zombies. O’Flynn went about shooting them through the head without so much as a by-your-leave; Muldoon wanted to keep them “alive,” especially if they were members of his own clan, though confined. His plan, as we will learn, is to teach them to eat things other than human flesh—though precisely what good that will do isn’t made terribly clear.
Anyway, after a shoot-out at the dock—O’Flynn’s a rascal who wants to fleece his “customers” just as Sarge used to do—the survivors, including the darlin’ man, make their way to the island, where O’Flynn’s daughter (Kathleen Munroe) has been zombified (although there’s a twist afoot in that regard). The rest of the movie is taken up by a renewal of the civil war between the O’Flynns and the Muldoons, with the newcomers dragged into the quarrel and many of them biting the dust in a variety of bloody ways.
Romero has persistently tried to use his series to spread social commentary of sorts, and “Survival of the Dead” is no exception to the rule. He’s employing Plum Island as a microcosm of a world in which nations cherish their enmities to an absurd extent. But for most viewers the message will be less important than the mayhem, which is pretty much non-stop and increasingly repetitive, since frankly it’s difficult to keep coming up with different ways to blow a zombie’s head off. (Luckily for the still normal, ammunition appears to be plentiful.)
Romero does manage to fashion an occasional suspenseful sequence, but for the most part the action is fairly rote, and so is the acting. Welsh is a scenery-chewer of the old school, and Fitzpatrick runs him a close second, while Van Sprang seems to be doing an imitation of Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken. The rest of the cast is little more than adequate, with Bostick in particular seeming to offer more walk-through than performance. And technically the movie looks like the low-rent production it is.
Of course, a chintzy look didn’t hurt the 1968 picture that started it all. But it’s a different age, and unless it’s leavened with a lot of wit the el-cheapo approach no longer carries the shlocky charm it once did.
Romero’s fans will undoubtedly turn out for “Survival,” and it does represent a comeback of sorts for him after the “Diary” debacle. But it’s unlikely to reach much beyond his base.