Over the last five years, we Romero fans have had not one, not two, but three zombie movies from the Godfather of the horror sub-genre. Night, Dawn and Day are iconic moments in horror history, each in their own right, and have long since been held in high regard by millions upon millions across the globe.
After the French got wind of Night and applauded it, the film became a horror milestone. Dawn of the Dead, a seminal moment in horror (even cinema) full stop, was an immediate success ... and then there was Day of the Dead. Initially it was derided for not living up to the yuck-it-up disco-era mini-epic that was, and is, Dawn, but then the fans (and even some critics) began to notice what it had going for it, and it has since become one of Romero's most adored films.
Those three zombie fests were back in Romero's Pittsburgh days, where the indie spirit of filmmaking in a family atmosphere was alive and well for Romero and Company. Then the 1990s happened ... people moved on, some died, and others had their own successes. The Pittsburgh era for Romero (and we the fans) was over, and it has been for some time - but it lives on because of the fans pouring obsessively over these films and holding them so dear to their hearts. Perhaps this goes at least some way to explain the split reactions to Romero's recent cinematic offerings.
Now we are presented with Romero - the Toronto era - it began with the little-seen, not-too-shabby Bruiser, and has been thriving of late with Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, and now Survival of the Dead. However, Land and Diary have split the fanbase somewhat violently with some digging one but hating the other, hating both, or loving both. What is certain however, is that Land through Survival is not Pittsburgh era Romero. That time has come and gone and left behind a glorious back catalogue of titles. As such, Survival (nor Land or Diary) were ever going to live up to the closely guarded objects of affection that is "the original trilogy" (but lets avoid any and all Star Wars "original vs new trilogy" rants). I dig Land of the Dead and always have, and while my opinion of Diary of the Dead has gone up and down like a rollercoaster, I've always been in favour of it.
Land had some problems, but it also had a lot going for it (scale, action, the furthest into an outbreak any zombie film has been, etc), meanwhile Diary was a return to Romero's indie roots and was something of an experimentation (to which I've had a complex and ever-shifting reaction to since its release in 2007). You could tell he was relieved to be back to his low budget territory where he was free to do as he pleased, and this has continued with Survival of the Dead - indie roots and indie freedom.
Survival is nowhere near as "silly" as I was beginning to suspect/fear/feel from the handful of videos us GAR fans had devoured online. We had seen shots of fire extinguisher eye-popping, fish-hooking, and that rather ropey-looking up-close comedy headshot ... fortunately, that's about as far as the real silliness goes (a few other moments would be debatable to the extent of their silliness), and in the context of the entire film it plays far better than in dismembered clips cobbled together for an online trailer.
As I'm on the subject, the CGI effects aren't as bad as I'd feared either. Sure there are some which stick out like a sore thumb (but none as obvious as Land's fun, but utterly obvious, CGI priest zombie), but you have to let this slide to an extent for being an indie flick. On the other hand though, there are moments in Survival where the CGI stands out a bit too much - mostly because of poor matching of contrast between the 'real' and 'fake' portions of the composed shot. The shadows don't match, so it feels - at times - too fake. However, these cases are few in number and mostly briefly glimpsed at (except for the creepy/funny/low-contrast-issue 'headshot gallery' as I shall call it).
Then again, some of the other CGI moments - particularly the added blood (understandble considering an indie budget and schedule) - work surprisingly well, as the increased budget over Diary and the extra experience that Spin FX have gained since, boasts its muscles.
The classical western feel of the film is a nice change of pace for Romero (but it's not at all overcooked), and it presents a satisfyingly old school vibe that is often lost from other recent zombie flicks (including the ones that aren't actually zed flicks). Indeed, the tried-and-true two-family stand-off between the O'Flynn and Muldoon clans on Plum Island, is one that - to me at least - mirrors the spiteful acrimony of recent American politics. Two sides proclaiming they are wholly right while the other is wholly wrong, all the while failing to deal properly with the problem at hand.
Land, and particularly Diary, featured heavy handed social commentary - Romero's most famous trait second only to the zombies themselves. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't, and indeed Diary of the Dead was perhaps the most blunt of all of Romero's commentaries upon society.
Survival of the Dead however, doesn't hammer the message home at all. It presents it to us on a classy platter and leaves it there for us to feast upon as much as we want. In fact, this should be ideal zombie internet forum fodder, presenting a wealth of ideas for in-depth discussion topics. It's far from devoid of thought, but it's likewise removed from driving the point so far home you've gone around in a circle three times.
Similar improvements over Land and Diary come in the shape of the characterisation - here we get a range of protagonists and supporting characters who, even if they're briefly on screen, are given enough depth for us to identify with them, to laugh with them, to grimace at them, and to simply enjoy the performances themselves. Land was over-egged a bit, and Diary suffered from young actors who just needed a bit more experience ... but here we are gifted with a spectrum of wonderful character actors who are clearly having a ball just chomping into their parts with gusto.
There's drama and comedy in equal measure, existing side-by-side in a satisfying balance, that either suffered or never materialised in Romero's previous two zombie flicks. Indeed, Survival is easily Romero's most balanced film of the Toronto era.
Despite the short length, the plot has enough room to breathe in almost all cases, although its most noticeable (along with the issue of budget) in not getting to see a really big sense of the scale of disaster at this stage in a zombie outbreak. We get snippets here and there, which are satisfying, but they do leave you wanting more. That said, we do get a much better glimpse into the feel and reality of desertion (no doubt with the majority of the living locked away in private residences or at rescue stations) than we ever did in Diary of the Dead. The characters have enough time to rope us in and involve us. They're interesting people, quirky people, and even complex people, but they're drawn with efficiency.
The dialogue is a big improvement over Diary (which I have to say featured some truly blunt lines), providing numerous moments for fans to enjoy - lines that make you root for a hero, or curse a bastard, or literally laugh out loud.
Survival is also easily Romero's funniest film since Creepshow - it has that same mentality, that sense of mischief and fun - and I'm pleased to say it almost always works. Even a moment plucked straight out of a Loony Toons cartoon after a grenade explodes didn't feel too daft or off-kilter - on the contrary - I burst out laughing and enjoyed every second ("don't look at me, start shootin' the bastards!"), while not once finding myself removed from the overall film.
There are a few clunky moments here and there, but they were never enough to stick in my mind, nor my throat, and with a swift, efficient pace you're never far away from a truly entertaining zombie moment, character moment, or simply a nice shot. Survival has left the POV stylings of Diary long behind (even though its predecessor is linked to it), and has returned to an artistic eye through a 2.35:1 frame. It's abundantly clear throughout that Romero, working well with this indie production, was afforded the freedom to shoot a nice shot if he saw it - the film is littered with such compositions, and quite simply it just looks beautiful. What's more, it is rarely obvious that it was shot on the Red One digital camera.
Bursting out of the gate with plenty of action up-front, before settling into a more thoughtful middle portion, and capping things off with an action packed finale, Survival of the Dead is a seriously enjoyable flick. Balancing a fun romp with a more serious character drama, under the umbrella of a zombie horror, it is quite simply Romero's best flick (thus far) from the Toronto era.