Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Survival Of The Dead

George Romero, the father of modern zombie movies (some call him the grandfather but that has me asking who the father is and I can't think of an answer other than Romero himself), hasn't always lived up to the promise of his early zombie movies. How could he? Night was so different and fresh. Dawn too. Day is one of my favourite movies. Not everyone feels the same.

Many many years passed. And Romero's more recent output has been the subject of some debate. And much disappointment. Personally, I found Diary an embarrasment. Given what Romero has contributed to movies and horror, that's not an easy thing to say.

So Survival didn't exactly have much to live up to. Did I want to see one of my favourite film makers spiral even further down? And the trailers and clips, full of poor CG-composited shots, didn't fill me with hope. Well, the movie was released on Blu-Ray last weekend. The cover instantly drew me in. It's a classic horror painting that could have come from the 70s or 80s (a little like the image above). A good start and I couldn't resist buying it and giving it a watch.

Those poor shots in the trailers? They look just as bad in the movie itself.

But Romero is back.

Survival Of The Dead features Alan Van Sprang as a soldier with questionable morals, Athena Karkanis as a solider with questionable timing and Kenneth Welsh as an old Irish island-dweller with a questionable accent.

In an odd move, the absolute worst shots of the movie were in those trailers. What's around them, however, is a far more interesting movie. In tone, it felt classic. Only a laptop, the internet and an iPod Touch betray the year of origin. Those elements aside, this could have come just after Dawn. The setting is so different and yet there is something very similar in the tone.

In every one of his zombie movies, Romero attempts to make it about the people. The survivors. Getting this right is what made Dawn so absolutely special. Getting it wrong, well, that's complete failure. Watching Survival, I found myself invested in the characters. I wanted things to go well for them. I knew things would get worse and worse and I found myself rooting for them. The film is full of tense moments - not zombie scares, but moments where I simply wanted things to go well for the characters.

This movie made me care about the characters. Especially O'Flynn, which was a surprise - his godawful Oirish accent made him seem like a joke in the trailers but, in the context of the movie, I really got to like him. I cared about him. And that's where this movie really succeeded.

There's humour here too. Some nice character moments but, more than that, Romero milks the humour from the zombies themselves just as he did in Dawn. And, like Dawn, it's a humour tainted with sadness. It's nihilistic humour and this is something Romero understands and very few other people making zombie movies seem to get - especially anyone falling into the trap of thinking that making them run makes them scarier.

In Survival, Romero explores the human aspects of these dead even further. In most zombie movies, people get a kick out of the killing, and audiences get a kick out of watching. They're almost like seeing guilt-free slaughter. But it's not guilt-free. The zombies are all someones family. A mother, daughter, brother. That's something often touched on in zombie movies, but it's quickly discarded for some more carnage. It's not discarded here. Romero explores this, acknowledges that these are all people.

They're dead. All messed up.

But they're people.

That's actually something I was trying to get with my little zombie-a-day project so it's great to see Romero really explore that idea.

Of course, there are plenty of zombie moments and kills but you've seen most of the zombie 'gags' in the trailers and they aren't always successful. Certainly the poor CG-compositing kills many shots. He should really have steered clear of that completely and gone practical. The zombie moments aren't the strength of this movie. But they also aren't what the movie is about.

The pacing isn't always great. There was a point around 2/3 into the movie where I found myself drifting off. But it had me back by the end. And one character had me thinking about other things every time she opened her mouth. Not sure why but she was just dull.

Overall, though, this movie had me. It hooked me in in a way no Romero movie has done since Day. And it felt classic.

It took me by surprise and I really enjoyed it. Nice to be able to say great things about a new movie from the father of zombie movies.

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