George A. Romero not only created the modern zombie horror genre, but he is still considered by many as the master of genre — even with mostly unsuccessful films like Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead. Personally, I can’t call myself a huge Romero fan, but I am a horror film connoisseur and consider Dawn of the Dead one of my favorite horror films of all time. Still, even though I had very little expectation for Survival of the Dead, I came out completely unsatisfied.
The major problems I have with the film are the zombies and their lack of any horror. Although I wouldn’t call any of Romero’s zombie films “scary” he completely pin-pointed what makes zombies frightening: There are millions of them and they will never stop until they eat you. Sure, they might move slowly and are (for the most part) incredibly stupid; there is still nowhere you can run. I understand Romero’s damnation of the new-age running zombie, but without showing us more than ten zombies in a single shot and basing your film on the premise of having your characters going to an island with a small zombie population, there isn’t much left in the area of thrills. To sum this argument up, one of the lead characters literally rolls his eyes as a zombie stumbles toward him, as if to say “these zombies are more annoying than life-threatening.” When your characters are doing this, the audience will inevitably feel the same way.
What some of Romero’s previous films lack in overall horror, they are almost always saved by really sharp satire, whether racism, consumerism or a reliance on technology. The social commentary of Survival of the Dead is so slim, it doesn’t have enough relevance to save the film. The film focuses on two warring (and strangely Irish) families who live on an island off the coast of Delaware. The hatred of the patriarchs of these families boils down to one common disagreement: Whether or not we should kill the zombies, even if they are the ones that we love. This could be an interesting question with good arguments being made on both sides, but it was never clear outside of the obvious “zombies eat people” vs. “but I love my daughter, I don’t want to kill her” paradigms. And, this argument doesn’t have any of the bite or pure humor that can be found in any of the previous films.
One slightly redeeming quality of the film is the step forward in Romero’s zombie mythology that comes toward the end. I won’t spoil anything with specifics, but it mirrors Romero’s previous progression of zombies becoming more organized and smarter. What zombies are able to learn potentially provides a cap on the complete Romero zombie story, but probably not without at least another film. It’s exciting that we can see a complete progression in these films, but I don’t know if I would care to sit through another film without knowing it is the final chapter.
Survival of the Dead is a film that I think anyone can stay away from. The die-hard fans are going to be unsatisfied by the lack of horror and commentary. New horror fans stumbling on to this film are going to be even more unsatisfied by the deplorable CGI effects. I can’t call Survival of the Dead exactly painful to watch (Romero is, after all, a competent filmmaker), but there is really nothing to latch onto to call this a positive or worthwhile entry in the Romero canon.