George Romero's sixth installment isn't great, but he remains the king of zombies.
“Lousy times make lousy people,” mutters a character in George A. Romero’s sixth installment of his deathless (har-har) zombie series. As we’ve been taught time and again since Romero’s immortal 1968 Night of the Living Dead, flesh-eating monsters might be scary, but the real horror lies in what happens when human beings are left to their own selfish devices after society’s systems of order collapse.
Survival of the Dead isn’t much of a picture, honestly. It’s poorly acted and sketchily plotted, and boasts some of the worst cowboy costumes since Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer’s Carol Burnett Show neckerchiefs in Tombstone.
But it’s got some smart ideas at its core, and I can’t think of any other sixth sequel that feels so fresh, or is so willing to keep moving in odd directions, exploring new possibilities within a tired genre as well as delivering the same old trashy treats.
In case you’ve defied the past 42 years, six movies and countless knockoffs and forgotten the premise, a vaguely explained radiation leak has caused the dead to walk the earth, shuffling and moaning while snacking on human flesh. But Romero’s zombies are quite different from the Olympic-sprinter killing machines you’ll find in have evolved in postmodern Living Dead riffs like Zombieland and 28 Days Later. His undead are quieter creations—moaning in sadness and moving at a snail’s pace. There’s something deeply pathetic and slightly comical about these sad-sack slow-motion villains. The gross indignity of death is exaggerated if you have to walk around after, decomposing and brain-dead.
Survival is interesting because it’s the first Romero picture in which the zombies take a backseat. Largely inconsequential to the development of the plot, these whining undead pop up time and again mainly to get shot in the head for comic relief—lurching into the background of ending dialogue scenes, then being put to rest in the most creatively graphic ways imaginable.
Selfish, snarling National Guard deserter Sgt. ‘Nicotine’ Crocket (Alan Van Sprang, acting like a cut-rate, direct-to-video Clooney) reprises his role from Romero’s Diary of the Dead as a take-no-prisoners pillager. Backed by a compulsively masturbating lesbian sharpshooter (Athena Karkanis) and myriad ethnic caricatures, the Sarge accidentally stumbles into an age-old feud between warring Irish-descended clans on Delaware’s fictional Plum Island.
Kenneth Welsh (better known to Twin Peaks fans as the diabolical Windom Earle) breaks out his worst leprechaun accent as a cutthroat patriarch, who has spent most of his lifetime battling the riotously monikered cattle baron Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick). Seamus Muldoon, by the way, is possibly the only name funnier than Nicotine Crocket in the entire history of cinema. And so, it’s the Hatfields vs. the McCoys—except there are all sorts of undead lurking around to complicate matters.
Our warring Irishmen wear a variety of laughably dated Western costumes, firing rusty six-shooters and speaking in such bizarre, corny monologues that Survival occasionally feels like one of those goofy old Star Trek episodes in which Kirk and Spock go back in time to make some sort of baldly allegorical point about American history.
Which might be why I had such a good time, Survival’s obvious flaws be damned. Romero’s picture belongs to a stubbornly unironic tradition of transparent political commentary that’s lost on modern audiences. (The guy is 70, speaking in old-school vernacular and proudly working from a different playbook than Saw audiences are used to.) At its best, the film feels like the work of a delirious, out-of-touch man who nonetheless has some angry things to say about where he thinks the world is headed. And hey, get off my lawn!
Then, of course, there are the zombies. By this point in the series they’ve become hapless figures of pathos, and Romero keeps dropping unsubtle hints that these once-terrifying monsters should no longer be feared, but pitied. His affection clearly now lies with the undead, and it’s our miserable, violent, irrational grudge-holding human race that turns out to be the real plague.
Director: George Romero
Starring: Alan Van Sprang, Kenneth Welsh
Running time: 90 minutes