Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Film Review: SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (2010, George A. Romero)

Stars: 4.5 of 5.
Running Time: 90 minutes.
Tag-line: "Death isn't what it used to be."
Notable Cast or Crew: Kenneth Welsh (Windom Earle on TWIN PEAKS, PERFECT, DEATH WISH V, THE AVIATOR, TIMECOP), Alan Van Sprang (LAND OF THE DEAD, DIARY OF THE DEAD), Kathleen Munroe (NCIS, BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE), Devon Bostick (LAND OF THE DEAD, SAW IV), Richard Fitzpatrick (THE BOONDOCK SAINTS, 16 BLOCKS), Athena Karkanis (SAW IV, SAW VI), Stefano DiMatteo.
Best one-liner: "Would ya get some more bullets for this gun?" Better with an over-the-top Irish lilt.

Each time George A. Romero completes a new film (dating back to BRUISER in 2000, I'd say), and before I get the chance to see it, I've already heard the most horrible press- 'George has lost it,' this and that and the other. I get to wondering if maybe they're right, because, in my experience, many brilliant directors' oeuvres have been tarnished by age and a slew of late-in-the-game clunkers... Then I finally see the film in question, and I'm blown away. I'm sorry I ever doubted you, George. SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD is fantastic. It's a grandly misanthropic popcorn picture with likable characters, gooey thrills, terrific atmosphere, and a lot of (subtle) laughs. I haven't watched a new release with a silly grin on my face for the entire duration since Werner Herzog's BAD LIEUTENANT.

George submits, for our consideration, some truly ludicrous situations which, in the context of humorless modern horror, could at a cursory glance seem hackneyed, lazy, or worse. We have a contemporary 'Hatfields vs. McCoys'-style feud and some characters who initially appear to be card-board cut-outs (the 'Lesbian,' the 'Latino Catholic,' the 'Boy'). This is where we get the knee-jerk responses from the crowd who thinks that SAW is better example of the genre than CREEPSHOW. They won't get it. But by the time a squawking bird swoop is used for a laugh rather than a scare, or we receive the revelation that a certain character has an unexpected twin, you should realize what's going on here– yes, George is having a goddamned blast. He's playing with us. I'm reminded of the benevolent narrative silliness of everything from Robert Rodriguez's PLANET TERROR to John Carpenter's IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS to even Lynch & Frost's TWIN PEAKS. How many times can George tell us that, as a society, we're bigger, dopier, and more despicable assholes than zombies? Well, at least once more!

I don't wish to give away too much of the plot, but the majority of the proceedings take place on an island off the coast of Delaware, inexplicably (and delightfully) inhabited by two rival clans of Irishmen (the O'Flynns and the Muldoons) whose existences are firmly rooted in the 19th Century.
Daniel Fitzpatrick is phenomenal as the leader of the Muldoons- with electrifying shades of Lawrence Tierney.

At times, it's practically a Western- a stylistic choice amplified by the use of rural weaponry, six-shooters, and other vintage firearms. In a way, that's certainly true to the series' roots- one of the most stirring images of the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is that of a Wild-West style 'zombie posse' wandering the countryside, impetuously blowing away the walking dead. Regardless, using the zombies as an excuse to once again point guns at one another, the O'Flynns and Muldoons take diametrically opposing views as to how the matter ought to be handled. The O'Flynns being of the "zombies should be shot in the head" school of thought, and the Muldoons being of the "zombies should be chained up and allowed to carry on in a perverse, macabre parody of their former lives" school of thought.

The little enclave soon finds itself intruded upon by a third party (in the grand Spaghetti Western tradition) who promise to, shall we say... shake things up. The third party in question is a squad of National Guardsmen (led by the excellent Alan Van Sprang as 'Sarge'), who were last seen robbing the shit out of our film student heroes in DIARY OF THE DEAD.
I feel as if anyone who saw DIARY must remember the devilish grin and fearsome countenance of Mr. Van Sprang as he cheerfully relieved the pompous kids of their belongings (at gunpoint). The brief scene certainly stuck in my mind as one of the highlights of DIARY (you can read my appreciation here), so you can imagine my delight when I discovered that he was (ostensibly) the protagonist of SURVIVAL.

There's a lot to like here. The RED camera-lensed visuals are astoundingly beautiful, and the atmosphere is top-notch.
Filmed off of Port Dover on the north side of Lake Erie, we're entreated to eerie, rustic, island imagery reminiscent of Carpenter's THE FOG.
There's slapstick worthy of Buster Keaton (and a dynamite gag perhaps worthy of the Looney Tunes). There's plenty of gore, and many creative zombie kills (which I shan't spoil here, but I will say that if you enjoyed Samuel the Amish zombie slayer in DIARY, you will find a lot to like here). One of my (slight) complaints is the preponderance of CGI gore, but when pressed on it at the Q&A, George revealed that in order to maintain creative control over projects these days, he must adhere to the strictest of shooting schedules, which means no time playing around with elaborate make-up effects that could malfunction and require multiple takes, costume resets, set cleaning, and the like. I'm not letting bad CGI off the hook- not by a long shot- but there certainly seem to be some limitations here that George must choose to live with if he's going to continue making movies in this climate, which marks just yet another dissatisfaction I have with the way that films are made (and distributed) these days. There is, however, a non-CGI reimagining of Captain Rhodes' (literally!) gut-wrenching demise in DAY OF THE DEAD which is certainly refreshing.

Anyway, I haven't even got to the best part yet- allow me to tell you about SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD's ace in the hole, the card up its sleeve, its crown jewel– shaggy Canadian veteran character actor Kenneth Welsh.
You may know him already as TWIN PEAKS' nefarious man of many disguises, Windom Earle. But here, as the sturdy, grizzled head of the O'Flynn clan, he is jaw-droppingly spectacular. He reaches heights of character acting that have been grasped previously by men named Busey, Dourif, and Henriksen. He's no spring chicken, but he can kick your ass- and then he'll say something sing-songily incorrigible right afterward.
It's the sort of cinematic badass whose every action has you laughing- not because it's funny, but because you believe every second of it. His 'viral-video-within-the-film' as "Captain Courageous" is a thing of lunatic beauty:
I don't want to say any more, but suffice it to say, I'm going to begin discovering the minutiae of this man's filmography...immediately.

In all, an excellent, excellent film. Zombie action and other such amusements, melodrama, atmosphere, and with the occasional, unexpected emotional weight to it. And don't be surprised if- when awards season rolls around- I'm still heralding this as one of the best of the year. I can't wait until the next one, George!

-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

I was wondering if this one was any good and debated checking it out via ON DEMAND. You have me convinced! I too really liked DIARY OF THE DEAD even though many did not. Hell, I even thought that LAND OF THE DEAD was a blast with a John Carpenter-esque ensemble. So, SURVIVAL sounds like more of the same. Very cool.

I dig Welsh too. Growing in Canada, you get to see a lot of him on TV as he has a pretty extensive resume but he's been in quite a few productions South of the Border as well. The man does get around.

Sean Gill said...

Basically, if you enjoyed LAND and DIARY, I don't see how you couldn't enjoy SURVIVAL. Aside from the occasional bad CGI (which hopefully I've overstated to the point that it won't bother you), it certainly feels like a film from the golden era, when Argento, Romero, and Carpenter were the kings of horror.

And it's funny how the zombies have evolved from THE monster to almost merely a nuisance existing on the fringe of human monstrousness. In DAWN he compared us to the zombies, but by LAND and SURVIVAL, the zombies are on a higher plane than the humans. Like we've become so hideous, that zombies are something we should be STRIVING toward. But George is so jolly, it's awful hard to call him a misanthrope!

J.D. said...

Agreed! I particularly enjoy the zombies in LAND, esp. Big Daddy who becomes the Che Guevara of the zombies. Viva la revolution!