Director George A. Romero kicked off the zombie genre in 1968 with his “Night of the Living Dead,” and from the outset he used the undead menace to channel contemporary fears.
“Night,” amid the spilling intestines and severed limbs, contained pitch-black commentary on racial tensions, generational conflict and the televised brutality of the Vietnam War, while predicting the Manson Family horrors that would follow a few months later. Its sequel, “Dawn of the Dead” (1978), — one of the most disturbing horror movies ever made — was set in a shopping mall, and skewered Me Generation consumerism with ghoulish glee.
Romero’s last film, “Diary of the Dead” (2008), was still straining for relevance, with its “Blair Witch” faux-doc feel and film students whose first reaction to the zombie plague is to make an Internet film about it. The relevance seemed to be at the expense of real fright, however, and Romero’s old bugbear — bad acting — was closer to the surface than a casket after a flood.
Quality control takes a total swandive with Romero’s latest, “Survival of the Dead,” which manages to make battling zombie hordes about as exciting as watching pachinko balls drop. The only thing stiffer than the zombies’ rigor mortis shuffle has got to be the acting on display here; even by B-movie standards, this is wince-inducing. Try the Hispanic soldier on a battered ferry who tells his buddy — wink-wink, nudge-nudge — that “Boats are like women: there isn’t one I can’t fire up!” It doesn’t get any better.
Romero sets his tale in a movie-movie world that would make Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge!”) cream, but should be setting off alarm bells for the rest of us. You’ve got feuding Oirish paterfamilias who own ranches on an island off the Eastern seaboard that are staffed by Texan cowboys from the cast of “High Noon.” There’s also a soldier named Sarge, a sailor who’s a dead ringer for Popeye, and a sullen teen who seems to think he’s Edward Furlong in “Terminator 2″; about all that’s missing is the Professor and Mary Ann, here on Gilligan’s Isle.
When corpses start to reanimate for reasons unknown and feed on the living, Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh) and his clan take the eminently sensible position that the dead should stay dead by putting bullets in their brains. His nemesis, Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), is of the opinion that the dead can be rehabilitated, or at least trained to gnaw on something other than human meat. O’Flynn’s daughter, Janet (Kathleen Munroe), is stuck in the middle, asking why can’t we all just get along, and working out her daddy issues; no points for guessing that she’s not gonna make it to the last reel.
After getting himself exiled from the island, O’Flynn convinces other survivors into going there thinking that it’s a safe haven; this is where Sarge (Alan Van Sprang) and his rogue soldiers come in, tricked by O’Flynn into fighting his war. “Survival” winds up spending so much time on this Hatfields vs. McCoys hillbilly feud, that the zombies almost seem like an afterthought. There are plenty of them, but they are slow and gunned down with such impunity, that they almost never seem a threat.
There’s the usual zombie-flick dilemma of having to face-down a dearly departed family member who now wants to suck on your bone marrow, and the ethics of survival in an atavistic landscape.
Unfortunately for Romero, his flick opens the same month as “The Road,” the Cormac McCarthy adaptation starring Viggo Mortensen as a father trying to protect his son in a desolate, postapocalyptic world, and which deals with much the same issues in an infinitely more powerful way.
“Survival of the Dead” will show a head being blown to such a pulp that the top of the cranial plate lands on the chin bone with a clatter; “The Road” implies far more than it shows, but is about 10 times more chilling. That’s because “The Road,” through committed performances and the clever use of real-world locations (Mount St. Helens, posthurricane Katrina Louisiana), allows us to buy into its fictions: the leap into fantasy is easily made when things look and sound real.
Just about everything in “Survival” feels, well, phony, from its stilted dialogue to its ridiculous plot contrivances (including that old chestnut, the identical twin). “Survival” is a movie marked by its utter lack of craft, other than in exploding squibs and prosthetic limbs. If this were a fan film made for YouTube, it would be just about bearable, but coming from the man who is the acknowledged master of the genre, it is painful to watch.