Romero: An Appreciation Part 06 – Survival of the Dead

Within a few weeks of Diary’s release the news of another “Dead” movie began circulating. “…of the Dead” as it was originally called on promotional artwork, produced the anticipation anyone would expect after the poor reception of both Land and Diary.

No one seemed to care except the die-hard’s, and the eventually named Survival of the Dead bypassed the cinemas to find its way onto DVD and Blu-Ray within a year almost to the day of Diary’s release.


Most viewers did not seem to care; even fans of hard-core horror seemed to have little interest in the “Dead” franchise, brushing Survival aside without much of a thought. The original home release of this movie seemed well aware of its position in the market, it contained no extras and even the promo’s masquerading as “makings of” made no appearance.

However the film itself was another matter entirely.


There are many carry over’s from the previous films, the camera Romero had used had changed to a Red One Digital camera, the ratio reverting back to Land’s 2.40, and many of the creature effects had been done digitally; many of these facts seasoned Romero fans noted with a sad sign of resignation, only to begin to sit up and take notice as the film unfolded onscreen.


The use of the Red One camera pulled Romero back into a place he was considerably more comfortable. The UltraHD (4520x2540 pixels) allowing him to create something that could be competitive in the digital arena without having to resort to studio backing or the cinema verité of Diary. It is this single choice that perhaps saved Survival by allowing Romero to concentrate on what he does best; creating compelling and realistic characters.


In most respects Survival is vintage Romero, the story and subtexts contained within it are craftily written and played out by characters who defy easy categorization. The cinematography is good; though not to the same standard as earlier films in the series and the editing and sound design are what we would expect.

Survival’s only true let down is its effects which seem out of place and lack the intensity and humour of his easier efforts in the series. Each time a zombie succumbed to a digitally created demise the viewer’s heart sinks a little, and thoughts of Romero’s heyday alongside Tom Savini come inevitably to mind.


What keeps the viewer watching is an interesting take on many of the themes that Romero had introduced in earlier films, once again Bub from Day is revisited (though not equalled) and we are presented with many questions regarding the dead, the living and the relationship between them both.


As with Diary certain traditions of the “Dead” franchise are not implemented in Survival. The archetypical characters (misunderstood Afro-American hero, strong female, fractured male and the everyman) are once again absent and instead we are presented with a collection of groups with which the story plays out. We have our “heroes” the guardsmen (who previously appeared in Diary), two warring families and, of course, the dead themselves.


In so many ways Survival is far more a traditional zombie film than anything Romero has produced. There is passivity to the dead now, even when en masse they no longer provide us with the carnage they once did. It is as if the zombies in Romero’s films are much like Romero himself, aged and more contemplative about their fate. Rather than being figures of fear the dead are treated more as props and the film revolves more around the survivors’ misplaced affection to their lost loved ones whom the dead represent.


With a nod to the craft that epitomised his earlier work Romero carefully creates a tale of re-emergent violence. This represents itself in a tit for tat conflict between two families, the dead a constant reminder of one’s crimes against the other.

Much like Land, Survival makes the viewer consider recent events in our shared history, a growing religious intolerance and the violence this all too often propagates. The film also serves a healthy nod to a very different style of film making to which we are used to from Romero; that of the Ghost Movie.


Survival of the Dead concerns itself with just that; the survival of the new species of human, one could call it Homo-Mortis, that the Homo-Sapiens are dedicated to wiping out. One small group of these Homo-Sapiens decides to aide in the new species by breaking the cycle of violence between the two species, by taking themselves off of Homo-Mortis’ menu. All while another group is steadfast in their belief that the only thing to be done “is to shoot them in the head”.


To both these zombies, these Homo-Mortis represent those who have passed on. But while one wishes to hold on to those gone the other wishes to forget them, and the pain their passing brings with it.

To both the zombies are ghosts.

Throughout the film this is reiterated, time and again, by a female Homo-Mortis who rides across the small island on horseback. She is at the centre of the argument between the families, ultimately at the very fulcrum of their discourse. During the film it is said that as a living woman riding through the island was her greatest love, and it is implied that more than a few men wanted to tame her. Now one of the Dead this is what she does, forever, and it comes to mind that perhaps this is as close to heaven as a person can get.


There is more than a little romanticism in this idea, and the location in which Survival is set lends more than a little romanticism itself. Plum Island, as it is called, is idyllic. The island exudes a calm despite the warring factions that inhabit it, it harkens back to a much simpler way of life; something that is considerably more pure.

In a way it also harkens back to the mall so famously used in Dawn of the Dead; a perfect place of solitude made a hell not by the dead, but by the living.


Again there is no way one could rate Survival against Dawn, or even Day, with it coming out of the criticism positively. Survival fares far better than Diary, but probably not as well as Land with comparisons to the original three films. It does however share a solid base of similar themes, and even the character share similar construction, especially to Day.

It is when the aborted TV incarnation of the “Dead” franchise, Dead Reckoning, comes to mind that Survival takes on a slightly different perspective.


Survival of the Dead plays out a great deal like a TV two-parter cut into movie form, and the change of Diarys’ Colonel character into Sarge, and the channelling of Land of the Deads’ Riley this seems to include, implies that Survival may have started out as a plot idea for that unmade TV series, and any fan could not help but wonder what other half formulated plotline still exist that could find their way to film.

Though Survival of the Dead is not considered a strong film by many, it is certainly not the weak one some would insist. It may tread familiar ground and it may not even be a true horror movie, perhaps having too much in common with classical zombie traits or too much lyricism to have any bite of genuine fear; but this does not preclude it as a zombie movie, or a good one. Again here Romero becomes a victim of his own success, nothing less than enthusiastic praise is good enough, and any film he produces that does not fare well againt the films of his heyday are unjustly cast off as worthless. It should be sufficed to say that there are many film makers who could not do as well as Romero’s worst.


It has already been said that the zombies of Survival are perhaps a lot like Romero is himself in his later years. There is an introspective nature to them now, a turning full circle to their roots in a way that even Night of the Living Dead did not attempt. Survival connects more to the films of Jacques Tourneur or Victor Hugo Halperin than it does to even Romero’s own zombie movies, and even less to where the zombie sub-genre has gone in the last twenty years.

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Whereas most modern zombie films have taken the excess of Dawn of the Dead and pushed this, in some cases, to unbelievable degrees, Survival takes a sharp left turn into old territory, a territory made new again by its long absence. In a very real way this illustrates how Romero is still taking chances with his films as he has always been. He went for realism when realism was not seen in the horror film, and then he went for excess when realism was the done thing. With Survival he turns his back on the excess, and in some ways the realism as well, to produce something filled with dark romanticism and a lyrical leaning that is not often seen in contemporary horror movies.

Whether this approach works is largely dependant on the particular viewers in the audience, as always with Romero those viewers who have a broader approach to film will fare better in the experience and find more in the film with which they can relate. However those who approach Survival purely from a horror film perspective may not be so entertained; but this is a position that any fan of Romero’s work knows from the opening credit crawl.

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