REVIEW: Survival of the Dead Devoured by Too Many Unanswered Questions
During the torture-porn heyday, zombie maestro George A. Romero issued a curt but cutting assessment of the trend: "I don't get [them]. They're lacking metaphor." Coming from the father of a micro-genre he has successfully tweaked to suit the times for more than 40 years, that had to hurt. The cyclical resurgence of zombie films -- of which Romero's 2008 Diary of the Dead and now Survival of the Dead are only a part -- suggests that the metaphor is key to its endurance; the market for graphic internal anatomy lessons seems more finite. But while Survival of the Dead does its best to work up a decent allegorical bent -- this time involving territorial pissing matches within a country under siege -- its power is diffused (and frankly, confused) by its execution. Instead of closing in for the metaphorical kill, the film frequently wanders off in a new, noncommital direction.
Sargent "Nicotine" Crockett (Alan Van Sprang, the only returning character from Diary of the Dead), has convinced a band of fellow rogue soldiers to join him in his search for "a place where there's no 'them.'" In this case the Other, nominally at least, are the zombies, who now outnumber the living; they are almost inescapable and as rock-dumb as ever, despite an unlimited diet of brains. Although the soldiers are the only ones in fatigues, what remains of the country has broken down into post-apocalyptic militias: "Lousy times make lousy people," says one character, a concise aphorism for the nihilistic cycle of war that the film proceeds to dance around instead of deconstruct.
For the residents of the relatively zombie-free Plum Island, off the coast of Delaware (although set in the U.S., this film, like Diary, was shot in Ontario with a mostly Canadian cast), the lines are drawn, somewhat randomly, between two Irish clans, the O'Flynns and the Muldoons. When the Muldoon patriarch (Richard Fitzpatrick) is kicked off the island for taking a hard line against zombies (i.e., kill 'em all), he begins a scam to attract frightened mainlanders to the shore so he can rip them off. Why his O'Flynn counterpart (Kenneth Walsh) insists on keeping the zombies alive is never really clear: Is he just sentimental? Is it a Catholic thing? It's one of several potentially interesting questions the film raises only to leave hanging. Others include: Is it wrong to torture a zombie? Are the zombies illegal aliens? Can zombies be trained? Would a lesbian really masturbate in front of her fellow soldiers like she was scratching her nose?
When the soldiers, having been lured by the promise of Plum Island, overthrow Muldoon and then offer to take him on their mission to salvation across the channel, the exceptionalist rhetoric ramps up and a subplot involving Muldoon's possibly undead daughter Janet (Kathleen Munroe) slows the film down. Despite admirably committed performances (Fitzpatrick and a young tag-along played by Devon Bostick are standouts) and some dedicated camp (memorable kills include a zombie, shot in the stomach with a flare gun, whose head lights up like a Roman candle), by the time the climactic O'Flynn/Muldoon showdown arrives, the film has started to drag like a club-footed you-know-what.