Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Survival of the Dead

The main problems with the latest installment of George Romero's zombie series are that it would like to be too human, and there's not enough zombies. It kicks off with a family feud on small, autumnal idyllic Plum Island, off the coast of Delaware, before switching to the mainland to introduce the small gang of National Guardsmen who'll comprise the main strand of protagonists. This group's trip to the supposed haven of Plum, and their stumbling into the feud, forms the main thrust of the plot, with various pat character pairings and zombies relegated to a barely present non-threat.

The films of the initial Dead trilogy each gained their power from a fundamental socio-political subtext, and a strict confinement of place. In Romero's recent return to the material, Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead both suffered from a much weaker satirical thrust, and settings that were more diffuse; stripped of the intensity of besiegement, the B-movie banality of the human relationships was fatally exposed. Survival is the least successful yet in this regard, actively foregrounding those elements; as to the other, Romero has declared that his subtextual target this time is war – as in "fighting is bad" – but the military personnel project a basically honourable, if desperate, good sense (ie the opposite of the cameo in Diary), and a comic-book megalomaniac villain is hardly a neat conduit for satire.

A rather dislikable old man, Patrick O'Flynn (possessed, supposedly, of rascally Irish charm) is banished from Plum for wanting to dispose of the zombies; for his rival patriarch Muldoon (possessed of no charm at all and his menace confined to a fat bald head and perma-scowl) wants to keep them alive – nothing's more important than family etc - with vague motivations that somebody someday will find a cure, or that the zombies will learn to eat something other than humans. Why, therefore, is he waiting for a zombie girl to eat the horse of which she was clearly quite fond in life, and that she still gallops full-tilt across the island, demonstrating an improbable – and ignored – leap in zombie motor skills? The chained zombies repeat their daily tasks or are herded into stables with none of the queasy shock of cognitive zombie Bub in Day, nor the rich implications for future development, reduced by the finale to that most ignoble status: plot device.

If Muldoon comes off as two-dimensionally backwoods insane, none of the other characters fares any better. Sarge Crockett is a sketchbook of hard man professional tics, indulging in tired tough-guy banter with an improbably self-possessed emo kid. Plum itself is an appealingly lush setting, with a recurring stretch of woods that hints at a fairy-tale route not taken (reprised, to little effect, in the final "eternal showdown" shot). One of the soldiers, irrelevantly, is a lesbian, called “Tomboy” even though she’s reasonably fem, and first seen masturbating. For some reason. An armoured car full of cash and a surprise twin twist are equally pointless. None of which would matter too much if the movie was actually scary, and the zombies any more than set dressing. There's some brief fun with a fire extinguisher and a flare gun, and a nicely impressionistic (if brief) underwater zombie attack, but kept captive on Plum they are virtually absent from the second half of the film. That the broad-brush sympathetic characterisation of one of the supporting players encourages us to care not a whit when he is torn in two in a straight - and inferior - replay of the group gut-munching from Day, is a sad emblem of the tragic decline in Romero's imaginative and cinematic powers.

d/sc George A. Romero p Paula Devonshire ph Adam Swica ed Michael Doherty pd Arvinder Grewal m Robert Carli cast Alan Van Sprang, Kenneth Welsh, Kathleen Munroe, Devon Bostick, Richard Fitzpatrick, Athena Karkanis, Stefano DiMatteo
(2009, USA/Can, 90m)
posted by tom newth at

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