Survival of the Dead (2009) Dir. George A. Romero
George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead is a film that I like (non-ironically) more than you do. I say that with confidence, while also realizing that there are those very few who likewise enjoy the film. However, its absolute critical drubbing and almost non-existent box office cannot be ignored. Survival was no Dawn or Day … hell, it wasn’t even Land (another entry that was thrashed upon release that I also enjoyed), though it was a helluva step up from Diary.
But—and here’s the rub—it was never meant to be any of those films, so criticism by comparison is kind of pointless and becomes more a critique of the viewer’s own baggage, not the movie. Additionally, I don’t think Survival (or Diary) is technically in the same narrative universe. The only carryovers were the undead and the relentless pessimism towards human nature, which I seem to recall critics and fans bemoaning with regards to Survival’s story. Too “on the nose” was levied at the film back in 2008. I’d argue, however, that the message was right on the money.
Hell, I’d say Survival of the Dead was damn near prescient in regards to the political shithouse we now find ourselves in. Here’s a choice quote, if you don’t believe me:
“In an us-versus-them world, someone puts up a flag; another person tears it down and puts up his own. Pretty soon no one remembers what started the war in the first place and the fighting becomes all about those stupid flags.”
Maybe it’s just me? I dunno. Seems awfully fucking timely, though. Romero seemed to really get—better than just about any other filmmaker—that we as a species are all about eating each other alive.
And I’m just spitballing here but I wonder how much of Survival’s dismissal was due to the fact that it was, basically, a western masquerading as a zombie picture? I might be off base, but I feel like the genre mashup put off a lot of core horror fans. For some reason, audiences were willing to buy the gallows humor in the more contemporary outings, when it was biker gangs and crazed military goons.
Romero took zombies to some strange places in order to make pretty bold statements about American consumerism, the military and class separation, so how did Romero decide that Survival would be a … classic western?
I was fortunate to be able to sit down with the director when he was doing press for the film in 2009, and I thought I’d share some quotes from that interview:
Romero: “I wanted to, uh, it’s sort of a long-ish story. Diary of the Dead I made very quickly after Land of the Dead, and I really sort of wanted to go back to the roots and go small again – after that film. We found partners in a company called Artfire out here, and they’re willing to finance projects under a certain number, finance 100 percent and gamble, sell it later. Which is great for me, and they were willing to give me creative control, so I thought Diary would maybe be a one-shot thing.”
Romero on Diary of the Dead: “I wanted to do it quickly because it’s about emerging media, citizen journalism and all that. I wanted to do it before somebody beat me to the punch. So, we made that and even though it had a limited release – in North America, anyway – it cost so little to make that it ended up worldwide, with video and TV and everything else, wound up making a lot of money. My partner and I were noodling around for ideas for other projects, non-zombie things, and all of a sudden when Diary made all that bread, Artfire wanted to do another one. Quickly.”
On the decision to make Survival: “I was attracted for a couple of reasons. First of all, I saw it as a bit of a new franchise that my partner and I would actually own a little piece of. The first four films are all controlled by different people. I can’t even get enough cooperation for them to put out a box set. So, forget trying to cross-collateralize used characters, you know? I’d love to take this ‘Bub’ or ‘Big Daddy’ [characters from previous …of the Dead films] and show them when they were alive. I’ve always wanted to do that, so I saw this as an opportunity to do that. I came up with three story ideas, based on taking minor characters from Diary, and I have this conceit that it would be nice to do this little collage of what the world was like three months, four months, five months in. It’s not about the Bush administration. It’s not about consumerism. I just wanted to go with a more generalized theme, which is: enmities that don’t die. War, in general, and anger. It seems like all of North America needs to take an anger management course. So that was the theme, and I had the idea of them going to an island. They get to the island and there’s the Hatfields and the McCoys, and they’re caught up in this feud that’s been going forever. I had the idea, let’s just really try to make them [the new franchise films] stylistically different, as well. I remembered the old William Wyler western The Big Country, and I sat with the D.P. and the production designer and everybody, and we watched The Big Country and said, ‘Let’s make that our model.’ That just made it that much more fun for us. It’s a layer, a stylistic layer that gave us something else to shoot for, and be interested in.”
On his history with zombie films: “I just love it. I’d like to do two more of them. I have a whole little stockpile of ideas that I’ve never been able to do over the years, but now can do with CGI. I grew up on EC comic books, you know, and those were always full of gags, bad puns and humor. I love doing it. It’s not stale for me.”
Romero’s zombies weren’t stale for me, either, and I find it regrettable that he never got to make any further pictures after this one, though he had been working to get Road of the Dead off of the ground just prior to his death. Romero had only been developing Road and had not planned on directing the picture, so there is a good chance that the film may yet see the light of day.
[Portions of the interview originally appeared in Campus Circle]
*Classic Shit! started in 2009 as a semi-regular article for the website We Are Movie Geeks. It has been on hiatus for a long time, and I’ve decided to finally resurrect the column, reprinting older pieces as well as adding new ones, all of which will focus on film.