Survival of the Dead is just bizarre. Half-zombie movie, half-western, it is a confused film that is defeated by its own overblown narrative. George A. Romero squeezes in too many ideas in to too small and cheap a space, resulting in a stifled story that is never straightforward enough to make an impact.
Inspired by the Hatfield-McCoy Feud, and by William Wyler’s The Big Country, the film plays out a bitter rivalry between the O’Flynns and the Muldoons, two warring Irish families who live on Plum Island, off the coast of Delaware. In the aftermath of the outbreak, the O’Flynns, led by Patrick (Kenneth Welsh), wish to kill off all of the undead who inhabit the island, whereas the Muldoons, led by Seamus (Richard Fitzpatrick), propose to keep them alive until a cure is found. Patrick’s daughter, Janet (Kathleen Munroe), is fond of horses, yet not so fond of her father, and suggests that he be exiled from the island in order to end the bickering. Meanwhile, National Guard deserters Sergeant ‘Nicotine’ Crockett (played by Alan Van Sprang who briefly appears in both Land and Diary), Kenny, Francisco and Tomboy, hear of Plum Island through a boy’s stories (this character is literally named “Boy”) and decide to seek refuge there. There is some confusion and double-crossing involving Patrick attempting to dupe the guardsmen, but eventually everyone finds themselves on the island together, endlessly arguing, plotting and running around like characters in a blood-soaked soap opera. A couple of twists in the story are an attempt to keep things interesting, and there is some unnecessary love-interest talk which does nothing but make the audience feel that they’ve suddenly tuned in to an episode of Wildfire.
Land and Diary were evidence of Romero’s storytelling skills slipping: in both, the messages trip over themselves to take center stage, kicking over many other important aspects of the films in the process. They glory in their prospective audience, repeating themselves over and over (especially so in Diary), whilst forgetting that the strongest statements in film live and breathe through good drama and visuals. In Survival, the messages may not be so obtrusive, but what we see instead is an uncontrolled excess of narrative threads and pointless dialogue. As a student film from a first-time director, I could forgive this zombie flick for being sloppily written, but as the latest of films from a renowned horror director, this kind of baffling, third-rate drama is heartbreaking. I can only sit patiently and hope that Romero can successfully create something both new and brilliant in the near future, whether it be in the form of his series of comics Empire of the Dead (rumored for release in January) which will purportedly involve vampires as well as zombies, or in the form of a film that, dare I say it, leaves the undead alone to focus on something else entirely.
FINAL VERDICT: ★★