Friday, October 8, 2010

SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD - ULTIMATE UNDEAD EDITION


I've been a fan of George Romero's "Living Dead" films since I first saw NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD on VHS in High School. I have enjoyed all of the Romero-directed sequels and follow-ups to varying degrees, and I liked his latest, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (2009), too. I don't think it completely works, but I enjoyed it.

Following the events of the previous film, DIARY OF THE DEAD (2007), which basically "rebooted" the franchise and started a new cycle of films, a group of National Guardsmen (and one woman), led by a man named Sarge (Alan van Sprang), are roaming the countryside, scavenging for food and weapons and shooting the revived dead in their heads. After finding an abandoned armored car containing a fortune in cash, they view an internet video that promises sanctuary on Plum Island, somewhere off the coast of Delaware. Eventually, they make their way to the promised (is)land, only to find that it's become a battlefield between two rival Irish clans - the Muldoons (led by Richard Fitzpatrick) and the O'Flynns (led by Kenneth Welsh, TWIN PEAKS). The Muldoons believe that the zombies should be protected until a cure can be found, while the O'Flynns want them destroyed. The National Guardsmen are caught up in the feud, which ends up playing out in a manner not unlike a Hollywood Western.

A lot of Romero fans were disappointed in SURVIVAL (just check out the user comments on the IMDb), but I thought it was a fascinating attempt to find a new approach to the zombie genre. It suffers from its meager budget and some poor choices in casting and story, but Romero is still one of the only people making zombie films that are about people, rather than just spurting blood and exploding heads. Don't misunderstand - George doesn't skimp on his trademark gore, but as with his other "Dead" films, it's the living who are the real menace.

I won't argue with those who complain that there's too much humor and not enough horror; it worked for me, but I can understand why it might not for others. SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD is undeniably flawed, but I enjoyed it, and I suspect that, as with every other Romero film I've ever seen, my opinion of the film will only improve on subsequent viewings.

The movie looks pretty good, considering that it was shot on high-def video. Romero still has a good eye for composing effective shots and creatively using the camera. I was disappointed in the reliance on CGI for the majority of the special effects; I understand the financial reasons for its use, I just disagree with the director that it looks as good or better than old school, practical make-up FX.

The "Ultimate Undead Edition" DVD from Magnet/Magnolia Home Entertainment is a two-disc affair. Disc one contains the feature, presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen (making it only the second "dead" film shot in the 'scope ratio). The transfer is fine, with solid blacks, sharp detail, and no noticeable video "noise" or digital artifacts. Bonus features on this first disc include an amusing optional on-screen introduction by Romero, and a director's commentary track. There's also a couple of promotional featurettes.

Disc two contains a 'making of" documentary, storyboard comparisons, an FX featurette, several "clips" and a short film directed by Romero fan and filmmaker Michael Felsher that focuses on Alan van Sprang's "Sarge" character. It's okay, but doesn't really add anything to the SURVIVAL experience. 

If I seem somewhat lukewarm on this flick, it's only because I haven't really figured out how I feel about it yet. I missed it in theaters, and there's been so much fan negativity about this entry - it's certainly a polarizing film - that my expectations were somewhat diminished before I spun the disc. I did like it, and I found nothing inherently wrong with the story or Romero's filmmaking. It's not as scary as I would probably have liked it to be, but that's not necessarily a problem. As I said above, I invariably appreciate Romero's movies more the more times I watch them, and I suspect that will be the case with SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD.

I certainly don't agree with the gorehounds who think Romero's lost his touch or should step away from the genre - there's still more thought, craft, and creativity in SURVIVAL than in any dozen direct-to-disc zombie flicks (that are still ripping off Romero's original works), or, for that matter, the slew of horror remakes and torture porn sequels that pollute the theaters these days.

BUY: George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead (Two-Disc Ultimate Undead Edition)