Survival of the Dead, opening in theaters this today and available for private viewing via Video on Demand, may owe more to William Shakespeare than to earlier entries in writer-director George A. Romero's long-running zombie series.
Battling patriarchs, one in exile; a secluded island; a ragtag band of battle-weary men and women (one of them lesbian, more on that below); alienated children challenging their domineering fathers; mistaken identities; and a lesson in the futility of war: these are common themes in Shakespeare's plays and even in Greek tragedies long before him. They also constitute the plot of Survival of the Dead. While the characters don't speak in prose or wear Elizabethan apparel, I found the parallels — whether intentional or not — unavoidable.
What has become the Dead movie phenomenon began with Romero's little indie horror film from 1968, the now classic Night of the Living Dead. Its success spawned a cinematic series still going strong over 40 years later and frequently imitated.
As Romero writes in his new film's press notes: "I had no interest in doing a second zombie film until some friends in Pittsburgh gave me a tour of their new mall. That's how I got the inspiration for Dawn of the Dead (1978). I needed the meaning of the story — 'consumerism,' as it was later called — before I could create the story." The result remains one of the best entries in the zombie, horror and even comedy genres, and was remade in 2004 with good critical and financial results.
Romero pulls no punches explaining the inspiration for Survival of the Dead. "The movie is about war," he says bluntly. "I intend it to be an echo of what's happening in the world today ... The world has been reduced to a population of squabbling factions, each of whom believes that they are absolutely right and the other is absolutely wrong."
Indeed, the zombies in his new film (or "deadheads," as they are termed) don't pose as great a threat to the handful of remaining humans as the fiercely divided humans do to themselves. On one side are those residents of the isolated Plum Island who are loyal to Patrick O'Flynn (a strong turn by Kenneth Welsh, who recently appeared in HBO's Grey Gardens), who approaches the cannibalistic zombies with an unquestioning shoot-to-kill attitude. On the other side are Shamus Muldoon (a one-note Richard Fitzpatrick) and his clan, who quarantine the zombies but resist destroying them in hopes that a cure for the mysterious, dead-raising plague will be found. Muldoon is gradually revealed as an intolerant religious fundamentalist who quotes scripture in service to his increasingly immoral ends.
As O'Flynn says humorously, given the situation, of his bitter rivalry with Muldoon: "We've been chewing on each other ever since the school yard." When Muldoon and his men overwhelm O'Flynn and his defenders, O'Flynn's daughter (the striking Kathleen Munroe) convinces Muldoon to ship her father and his defenders off to the mainland rather than kill them. Once in zombie-ridden Delaware, O'Flynn plots his return to Plum Island using other human survivors as support and/or irritants to Muldoon. To say O'Flynn is a narcissist would be an understatement.
Into the fray unknowingly marches a group of soldiers who have defected in the face of the overwhelming undead onslaught. One of them is "Tomboy," an openly lesbian soldier played by Athena Karkanis. We first meet Tomboy as she is masturbating in the front seat of a military jeep, not giving a thought to the several male soldiers around her. While the hunky Francisco (Stefano DiMatteo) is openly enamored of her, Tomboy remains uncompromisingly — and admirably — true to herself even as the likable Francisco becomes afflicted with the zombie infection. Slight spoiler alert: Romero shows his respect for Tomboy by keeping her alive at film's end.
One can find elements of Shakespeare's The Tempest, As You Like It, King Lear and Titus Andronicus, among other works by the master, in Survival of the Dead. Tragedy and comedy, violence and compassion collide here as they frequently do in both Shakespeare's plays and Romero's movies. Shakespeare wasn't afraid of bloodletting to prove a dramatic point either, as Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Othello and Macbeth all make clear.
While Survival of the Dead is nowhere near as disappointing as Romero's last — 2007's Diary of the Dead, which was a hand-held, amateurish attempt to "re-boot" the series — it also isn't as accomplished as that film's predecessors. It is laughably heavy-handed at times, and some of the humans are downright stupid at letting their guard down while knowingly in the presence of a zombie. The movie does, however, have some intelligent, thought-provoking content that you won't find in most contemporary horror films, as is the case with most of Romero's productions. I expect even Bill Shakespeare would agree.
Reverend's Rating: B-
UPDATE: Survival of the Dead is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.