Zombies represent hell on Earth. Bruegel the Elder’s 1562 painting “The Triumph of Death” shows a terrible vision of an army of skeletons attacking a village while dark fires burn across the sky in the background. It’s much more than a nightmare. It’s a scenario that the more you study, the more bewildering and frightening it becomes.
Over the years, we have come to understand zombies very well. We know they are slow but tenacious, mindless creatures singularly obsessed with ripping apart live human flesh. Unlike Bruegel, George A. Romero has lost sight of the nightmare of such an environment. He prefers to embrace it as more of a dream from which the viewer might not be bothered to be awoken for all of its comforting elements. There’s no horror and no satire.
Sometimes nothing is better than something. Romero’s latest zombie retread demotes the 70-year-old filmmaker to a pale imitation of the groundbreaking director who invented zombie satire in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead, where the Vietnam War weighed heavily in the gritty subtext. Romero’s commentary on race relations gave the film an unmistakable backbone of au currant import that hit you in the gut. He went on to full-on postmodern force with Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). Dawn foreshadowed the military-industrial complex and radical right-wing extremism that have come to rule America’s social and political spectrum.
By comparison, Survival of the Dead represents a throwing in of the towel. It’s a cartoon rather than a work of rigorous cinematic art. Rather than contextualize the breakdown of global societies (witness the current crises in Greece, Thailand and the United States), Romero has written a story that would fit better into a ’60s-era Star Trek television episode. The film doesn’t come anywhere near the thematic heft of a half-hour episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery.
Now for the plot, which may seem familiar to Mark Twain fans. On the Delaware island of Plum, rival Irish families feud about how to handle their members who have been infected by the ever-approaching rampaging zombies. A rogue military squad led by Guardsman Sarge (Alan Van Sprang) learns about the island refuge from a hipster boy (an inadequate by Devon Bostick). The team ends up embroiled in the crossfire of a family squabble after making their way onto the idyllic island. Strident patriarch Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh) has no hesitation about killing infected persons, while his rival Shamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) would rather imprison his zombie relatives. Muldoon hopes to train them to eat animal flesh rather than human meat. Athena Karkanis plays Tomboy, the unit’s token lesbian, whose chances of finding love are zero. Zombie blood gets gratuitously splattered, but there’s nothing at stake in a movie that should never have been made. Survival of the Dead doesn’t even qualify as a guilty pleasure.
Horror films shouldn’t necessarily respond to the overwhelming circumstances of economic, natural and social catastrophes, but when you are the progenitor of the myth, you do have a certain obligation to rise to the level you established. Where Night of the Living Dead was a tapestry, Survival of the Dead is barely a thread.
Survival of the Dead (R) ★☆☆☆☆