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  • Writer's pictureRob Freese

Revisiting Survival of the Dead (2009)

It always seemed to me that George Romero never got a fair shake. Sure, he's considered one of the true masters of horror, and will forever have his place etched into the history books for Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1979).

For me, my favorite Romero film is Knightriders (1981), probably his most personal movie. It is a beautiful study of a group of people trying ot live a life outside the mainstream, but constantly fighting with dragons. It's mystical. It's magic. It's got some kick ass motorcycle jousting, Ed Harris as King Billy, and Tom Savini, who steals the show as Morgan, the Black Knight.

I also love Martin, which is a "vampire" movie like none before and few after. It was American Psycho decades before American Psycho. Or was it?

The Romero film I've probably watched more than all the rest is Creepshow. There's something perfect about this horror anthology that paid tribute to the E.C. horror comics from the 50's. It's a movie I can watch to the end, no matter where I come in on it. (Back in the days of cable, it was nothing to flip HBO on on a Friday or Saturday night and find the garish blast of Creepshow filling the screen. Sometimes I put it in to watch only one episode, but I end up watching the whole thing. Again, there's something perfect about it. It is the ultimate Amicus horror anthology not made by Amicus.)

I love The Crazies. It is a perfect little no-budget thriller. There's something about There's Always Vanilla that hasn't clicked with me. I appreciate that one because it was the NOTLD crew trying not to get pigeonholed as "genre filmmakers." Had it been a success, NOTLD might have been the odd horror film on everyone's resume.

Season of the Witch is definitely worth your time, but it is more art-house than grindhouse.

There are Romero films I'm not a big fan of. I enjoy The Dark Half, but that's not a movie I find that offers a lot of rewatchability. I've never figured out why it didn't click more with me. Is it too slick? Is the story too mainstream? Did it not seem like Romero? Maybe.

The same with Monkey Shines. I enjoy it when I watch it, but I have to wait a decade or two between viewings. Again, it seemed an odd choice for Romero, and at the time more kick ass horror/action films were coming out like Phantasm II and They Live week after week, which were more to my liking.

I didn't care for The Amusement Park, but that is something different entirely.

Bruiser...I probably need to see Bruiser again.

I always regretted he did not get his long announced Apartment Living film off the ground. I thought that could have been fun.

Then you get to his zombie films. It was inevitable. As soon as NOTLD was a hit, and then Dawn, horror fans were hungry for more of the same. I was no different at the time and I was blown away when I caught Day of the Dead on it's short theatrical release in the summer of '85.

There was always talk that George wanted to do one more zombie movie, Twilight of the Dead. That's a cool title (so cool it was used as the title for Fulci's Gates of Hell in some areas), but I never got the idea that George was every all that serious about it.

I think it stemmed from having to scale back his idea for Day of the Dead, which was accepted as his final chapter in his Dead Trilogy. It was fun talking and speculating about what a fourth chapter could be, but it didn't seem like it would ever really happen.

Years later, zombies were hot. I mean, 90's vampires hot, and they were everywhere. Movies, TV, comics, video games. The Dawn of the Dead remake was a hit.

And everyone kept saying the same thing. "This wouldn't be happening if it wasn't for George Romero." (Of course, it should have been "George Romero and his incredible collaborators," but we know what they meant.)

I didn't begrudge Romero one bit for taking the deal with Universal to make Land of the Dead. He worked with a healthy budget, his film could be as gory as he wanted it to be and he'd still get an R rating, and it would get a proper release. I was jazzed.

In interviews, Romero said he was able to go back and use ideas excised from the first draft of Day of the Dead for Land. Sounds good to me. I thought it was a logical extension of the first three films. I was good.

I was shocked when Diary of the Dead was announced. And that it was a "found footage" type film. At the time it seemed unfair to George. He wanted to make movies, but all anyone would spot him the money for was another zombie film. I caught it in the theater and realized it was the best remake of NOTLD ever. He rebooted the entire series and could spin off into whatever direction he wanted without worries about including farm houses, shopping malls or missile silos.

It was announced later that Survival of the Dead would pick up a story thread from Diary and follow a group of characters on their own story. I thought that was ambitious, but it came so quickly after Diary, I wondered if it could be any good. I mean, it was twenty years between Day and Land, and then a couple years between Land and Diary, and now...Survival.

The scope of the new Dead flicks were no less grand than before, but the budgets were certainly smaller. If anyone could make a five million dollar budget look like fifty million, it was George Romero. Gone were the latex slinging days of Tom Savini painting the walls red with guts and body parts. Now CGI filled in most of those duties, which I'm just not a fan of.

There's something organic about a zombie movie. It's about bodies, flesh and blood, meat. I don't think a computer can replicate that kind of carnage well enough to trick my eyes.

But...Romero. I went into Survival, but by this point I think I was suffering a little zombie movie burnout. Even though Romero is one of only a handful of filmmakers who use the living dead in their films properly, I still didn't anticipate this film with much enthusiasm.

My first viewing was pretty poor. Very little of the film worked for me. I mean, are there predominately Irish islands off the coast of Delaware? Do people really feel that a flesh eating zombie still has rights just because you're related to it? Isn't it possible that if zombies were hungry for anything other than human flesh, survivors would have figured it out by now?

Too much of it didn't work for me. I couldn't help looking at it as a failed attempt to keep the money flowing for more zombie flicks. I figured it was time for Romero to start looking elsewhere. But the powers that be said, "No, thanks, George. Let's do some more zombie movies. It's what the kids want!" He announced some kind of race car zombie flick that sounded cool but was not to be.

For years I've dismissed Survival of the Dead but never went back to give it a second watch. After 14 years I finally sat down and gave it another watch. I'm glad I did.

Now, I'm not about to try and convince you Survival is some misunderstood classic that needs to be reassessed. It's not. But it is a much more solid piece of living dead lore than I credited it on my first viewing.

The characters make more sense to me, even the hotheaded Irish families that want to fight all the time. I thought it was silly the first time around, but now they seemed more well rounded than I remembered.

The soldiers weren't the bad guys I wrote them off as being. Some of the plot twists and surprises weren't as out of left field as I first thought. And it's a short film. For some reason I remembered it being six and a half hours long. It came in at a brisk 89 minutes and didn't waste a lot of time.

I found it a lot funnier than I remembered too.

This is the part of being a movie fan that I absolutely love. The ability to go back to a movie that didn't originally work for me when I first saw it, and then see if it's any different.

I wonder if the pandemic has anything to do with this. I mean, like a world wide zombie plague, we saw a lot of shitty people do a lot of shitty things. If you remember watching the news during any part of the 2020 lockdown, it was like the opening moments of Dawn. People were hoarding toilet paper and hand soap like the looters in the entire series. All anyone was looking out for was themselves. It was a savage time.

Maybe the pandemic, like the glasses from Carpenter's They Live, helped us see many people for what they really were. I don't know. But I know now, the arguments between the two families in Survival seem absolutely sound now, way more so than when I first watched it. (How anyone could not just put a bullet in the head of a zombie was beyond me. Now, In today's society, I seriously see some people fighting for the rights of the Living Challenged.)

I still rank it as my sixth favorite of Romero's Dead series, but now it holds a much better standing on my list.

Doing the Dead Leg Shuffle on Plum Island in Survival of the Dead.

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