I still remember when NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was released. A mere youngster, I thought it was one of the coolest films I had ever seen. It’s still a face of mine. I found the whole concept and look of Zombies fascinating. Cooler than the movie however, was the marketing campaign which had giveaways of plastic lined “barf bags” emblazoned with a rubber-stamped red mini-lobby card of the film. Yes folks - it was rubber stamped with an ink pad on the bags. (These were the days of pre-high tech ad campaigns and when mimeograph was still the fashion.) Equally as cool as the movie was taking one’s lunch to school in these nifty barf bags. I remember how grossed out people got seeing the bags and that teachers thought they were “inappropriate” for lunch. But, then everyone could count on getting more grossed out when they saw the film. Over the years, however, “the cool factor” has dissipated in some George Romero’s subsequent DEAD films, with each losing a little more appeal than the last, until we now have the sixth in the DEAD series - SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD. And while entertaining enough, particularly if it had been made as a vintage ABC “Movie of the Week”, but for some very new cool ways to kill zombies, I wondered if I would survive watching the film.
The world is in turmoil. Zombies have taken over the Earth (still, yet and again). Humans are, for all intensive purposes, extinct. The military now patrols and fights zombies as mankind seems to have joined forces to battle this insidious plague that has taken over the world. But what do you do when you want some peace and quiet? A place with no zombies, no terror, no horror? Just somewhere you can put your feet up, enjoy nature and live your life without fear of being eaten or turned into a zombie? Well, if you’re the battle weary Sarge Crockett and company, you do what every peace seeking person does - commandeer an abandoned armored truck loaded with $3 million in cash and ferry yourself out to Plum Island - a little haven off the coast of Delaware and just south of Jersey. There’s plenty of green trees, fresh air and no zombies (or so the advertisements say). There’s also plenty of fighting and feuding a la the Hatfields and McCoys, only now it’s in the form of the O’Flynns and the Muldoons. Ah, nothing like some good Irish temper to get the blood going and zombies a munchin’.
But getting to Plum Island is a little more difficult than it seems. The harbor is overrun with zombies, both above and below the water. And Kenneth O’Flynn, patriarch of the Plum Island O’Flynns and self-appointed chief travel agent, has been ousted from the Island and is using his “advertisements” as a means to get transport home. Seems that O’Flynn and rival Muldoon have a difference of opinion when it comes to zombies - of which there are apparently plenty on Plum Island. O’Flynn wants to blow them all from here to Kingdom come while Seamus Muldoon herds them up like cattle or chains them to the ground, the mailbox, the kitchen, hoping for a cure or “reconditioning” that will stop the people-eating.
With nothing to lose but their lives, Sarge and gang head to Plum Island with O’Flynn in tow, hoping beyond hope that there may be life at the end of the harbor.
Half the fun of SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD is watching Kenneth Welsh as Patrick O’Flynn. Determined, spiteful, arrogant, but a loving father with a deadly aim, he picks off zombies with almost gleeful abandon. Likewise for Richard Fitzpatrick who plays Seamus Muldoon with the earnest of John Wayne in a John Ford western which bodes well with a camp factor. Alan Van Sprang make his second appearance in a Romero DEAD film, this time as Sarge Crockett (he played a Colonel in DIARY OF THE DEAD). He brings a cool, collected, egomaniacal edge to Sarge, but then does parlay a nice emotional twist in the character into something believable.
Written and directed by Romero, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD loses some of the appeal of his earlier works. With a campier tone and less political commentary than we have long come to expect from the DEAD films (this now the 6th), there is a constant feeling that he is “reaching” or “stretching”, trying to find something new to say or show about zombies and mankind. Where he does excel, however, thanks to some masterful effects, is with some creative new ways in zombie destruction - turning zombie heads into exploding fireballs for heads, imploding fire extinguisher head inflation just to name a few. You just can’t knock the reckless abandon and glee with which zombies are killed. Returning Romero editor Michael Doherty also works wonders with seamless munching and crunching. But it’s Romero’s attempt to blend horror, western and comedy genres that fails and pulls apart any cohesiveness, much the way zombies will pull apart than sinewy fat holding your bones together. The story lacks any real meat but for the O’Flynn-Muldoon feud, however, the structural differences of opinion get overshadowed by zombie madness and mayhem to the detriment of the overall film. And the bulk of comedic attempts are as vacant as the eyes of a zombie.
You will laugh and you will groan but who will survive SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD? Zombies? Mankind? Or you?
Patrick O’Flynn - Kenneth Welsh
Sarge - Alan Van Sprang
Seamus Muldoon - Richard Fitzpatrick
Written and directed by George Romero.