I had the good luck to attend a theatrical screening of Survival of the Dead. This is the fifth Romero zombie flick after Night, Dawn, Day, Land and Diary. While it's not the best of the series, it represents a serious improvement after the disappointment that what was Diary of the Dead. As a loose rule all of Romero's Zombie films stand alone from each other. Dawn and Day go together quite nicely, but could just as easily be in totally different worlds, and the years between Night and Dawn are more than obvious. Survival, on the other hand is a direct sequel to Diary of the Dead. It follows a group of National Guardsmen who robbed the insufferable college kids from Diary. For those who didn't see it, and those of us who don't care to remember, we are treated to a narrated flashback. The military never does very well in these movies. Sometimes they're just incompetent. Sometimes they're crazy. Invariably they're eaten. The reason that this group stands a chance seems to be because they have gone AWOL and as such are no longer tools of the establishment (as viewed from the perspective of hippy politics that still pervade the series). The fact that they're still robbing anyone who crosses their path is framed with surprising ambivalence by the typically moralizing director, and the moral high ground that they cop towards other traveling brigands is an irony that is left unexplored. Anyone following these movies is apt to detect certain patterns. The strong black lead whom the white people don't listen to is a big recurring element for George Romero. At some point in every film, that guy is the voice of the director. He's the voice of reason in the first two films. By Day of the Dead, he's telling the characters who will listen that they shouldn't try to control everything and enjoy the days that they have left. By the time that Land of the Dead rolled around this character had morphed into Big Daddy, the zombie general leading what could only be characterized as peoples' revolt against their human oppressors. Romero had clearly switched sides. Tellingly, Diary of the Dead had no black main characters at all. Along with melanin, all good sense and likability had also been drained from the cast. Our snow white protagonists did run into an all black group of survivors who were doing pretty well for themselves, that is until out heroes came along.
Survival of the dead has no black people at all. The only non-white person on display is an indistinctly Hispanic character sporting a cringe-inducing accent. George has always tried to add variety to his casting, but sometimes the result is a bit strange at it's best and at worst, downright George Lucas-like. When this Latin lothario makes the slimiest sexual advances imaginable, he sounds like a pornographic parody of Speedy Gonzalez stealing Pepe LaPew's act. Those familiar with Romero's politics will probably shrug this off as a miscalculation, but I wouldn't hold it against anyone who didn't.
The set up is that our small group of National Guard deserters have set off to survive on their own and end up on an island off of the coast of Delaware that is inhabited by a warring clans of Irish farmers. Since the movie has already featured thick Southern Accents in what we are told is Philadelphia (!), I suppose Irish brogues off of Delaware aren't the strangest thing going on here. Nonetheless, this is only one of the elements leading to this being hands down the weirdest of Romero's zombie movies to date.
The clan rivalry largely stems from one group wanting to kill the zombies, embarrassingly called "Dead Heads" by some characters, and the other who want to domesticate them. The level of zombie intelligence has been a major question in these movies since Day of the Dead, when Bub the zombie learned how to say "hello to (his) Aunt Alicia", and here they are seen chained up trying to till fields and deliver mail. The suggestion seems to be that they are less mindless monsters than aggressive proto-humans. This is all explored in a rather limited way by the rather limited characters. The rest of the time is taken up with wacky zombie kills, dodgy CGI and outright Loony Tunes physics. (A hand grenade makes a wall vanish revealing surprised, soot faced characters. A flare gun makes a zombie's head burst into flame from which a cigarette is lit. The skullcap of a blown off head drops neatly back onto a now vacant neck hole.)
All in all, Survival of the Dead has more going for it than against it. It's a good time, if not a scary or compelling one, and worlds better than the previous entry. For a director who has been making movies for roughly forty years, George A. Romero's work is surprisingly lively and fresh feeling. These last two movies, while inferior to earlier ones don't feel at all like the later work of an aging director. The mistakes seem more like those of a novice- someone who is so excited about his subject matter that errors come more from enthusiastic speed than waning talent or lack of ideas. Weather this is due to the director himself, or those with whom he has surrounded himself, it's refreshing and gives every indication of only getting better.