"Death isn't what it used to be."
I used to love George A. Romero, the man who revolutionized zombies in cinema some twenty-plus years before I was born. His original trilogy of zombie films comprised the authoritative guide to creating a zombie film, crafting tense tales where survival was not certain, where man was more a danger than reanimated, former men, and where parallels and allusions were intermixed in the themes so thoroughly that it would be impossible to reproduce (many have tried, none have suceeded). The "rules," in essence, to how zombies act were created by these seminal films, though in recent years the rule book has been thrown out the window by even Romero himself.
He had the right idea. Pit relatable, though complex and flawed humans against each other, as well as an ever-growing army of the undead, and let human nature unfold before our very eyes, with actions speaking louder than words, and tension so thick a Ginsu knife couldn't cut through it. Don't try to shock your audience, or make them leap out of their chairs, subdue them into a sense of safety, then send their world crashing down all around them, where they have nowhere to run.
Then, after a lengthy hiatus from the subgenre he helped create, he returned. Not as a messiah, not to remind us of what zombie films used to be. No, he instead came back as a man who seems to have forgotten what made his past hits so relevant and mindblowing to this day. Instead of creating films capable of being viewed endlessly, he created works that audiences would rather forget, never to revisit. Characters spouted observations like they were fucking philosophers amidst the apocalypse. With three films, he went and undid every positive thing he did for zombie cinema in the three before, piggybacking on his own success much like his imitators, though sometimes falling below the oh-so reachable bar they set. With 'Land of the Dead' and 'Diary of the Dead,' Romero changed. He went back to his roots, and then dug them out with a shovel.
Now, Romero has again risen from the dead to infect audiences who used to love him with 'Survival of the Dead.' The first official direct-sequel in the 'of the Dead' series, 'Survival' takes a one scene character (Alan Van Sprang as Sarge Crocket) from 'Diary' and turns the villainous National Guardsman into an similarly underdeveloped anti-hero. The group of military gone wild are seeking their new place in the world, where the dead already outnumber the living, and both sides of the fence are equally dangerous. A trip to an island off the coast of Delaware promises a better life for those who can afford to make it, but a rivalry between warring families threatens everyone on the island, as the feud now centers on philosophical differences concerning the treatment of the undead reaches a boiling point.
'Survival of the Dead' is no horror film. In order for it to be such, it would have to have an actual threat, and the only villain here is Romero. The O'Flynns and Muldoons are petty squabblers, whose different beliefs aren't threatening enough to be the central theme of a film. The undead? They're disposable, rarely in large numbers, and often kept so much in check that they may as well be in a zoo. Those going into the film blindly, based off the previous Romero films, which, regardless of success, had their share of the undead, will be sorely disappointed by this. The film could have been resolved by a dueling banjos montage, and that isn't even sarcasm.
The real villain of 'Survival of the Dead' is the special effects. Reliance on computers has made Romero lazy and sloppy. Sure, he now works with budgets smaller than your average Tiger Woods mistress payout, but there is no excuse for the way it is used. Decapitated zombie heads, still moaning, that don't fit in the scene due to their lighting, unnatural movements, and size is not the future of this genre. Point blank executions that leave a floating scalp that lands where a head once was isn't, either. But what about mood? 'Survival of the Dead' struggles to find a meaning, but it also constantly battles itself in terms of what direction it wants to go. Is it a statement on the lengths the living will go to survive, and how the greater good will be ignored for personal gain, or a slapstick comedy where grenades will only demolish a single side of a building? Is it a film where zombies will outnumber, surround, and assimilate, or randomly pop up out of nowhere for gag kills? Consistency is sorely lacking.
Of course, logic is missing from the equation, as well. Early on in the film, we witness a survivor sitting atop a shack, fishing in a body of water that is full of the undead. We get an early establishing shot showing there is no possible way for a zombie to get atop said roof, as there is no visible ramp, or even ladder (not that the undead could climb one!), yet as said fisherman recasts his line, he hooks a zombie. A zombie that magically appears atop the shack with him. We, the audience, are the unsuspecting fisherman, just trying to have fun for a few hours, and we get attacked for trying, by things that don't quite make sense. What does make sense? Praying that the rumor that two more 'of the Dead' films don't get made. Considering the track record, it may be time to put this series to bed and focus on competitive whittling, Mr. Romero. That, or just sit back and let other filmmakers take the names of your film and cash in on them. As it stands, you're not doing us or yourself any favors.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Survival of the Dead' is packaged in a standard Blu-ray case, hidden behind a neat, though misleading, lenticular slipcover. The images of a hand penetrating the earth, reaching towards us, and of a massively decaying, ready to attack zombie are not representative of anything in the film itself. The disc is a BD50, and has a fun little DVD-esque feature, where, upon loading, users get to choose a side to get a unique menu screen, between the militaristic humans, or the undead.
There is a pile of pre-menu trailers, including a preview of the upcoming AMC series 'The Walking Dead,' featuring an interview with Frank Darabont, as well as trailers for 'Rubber,' 'Centurion,' and 'The Oxford Murders,' as well as an HDNet bit, which is growing a bit old. Hey Mark Cuban, you wanna advertise the Dallas Mavericks in front of the discs, as well?
When Optimum Home Entertainment released 'Survival of the Dead' in the UK before the film even debuted stateside, a friend was kind enough to loan me the import, since it was impossible for me to do a four hour round-trip drive to the nearest theater playing 'Survival.' Not only did he save me time, he saved me the money it would have cost to import it, as the film looked absolutely, utterly awful. Naturally, I had some level of trepidation heading into Magnolia's release of 'Survival of the Dead,' based off of this experience; however, said journey through the depths of Blu-ray hell only helped me appreciate how solid this AVC MPEG-4 encode is.
From the very start, it's impossible to not notice the difference in quality, as the USA version makes the UK disc look like a rotting corpse...at least, more so. Detail levels receive an enormous boost, from the more natural skin tones (that sometimes wear their lighting too much and get blown out), to the wear in sets, paintbrush strokes in walls and doorjams, and the finer patterns and fabric in clothing, the difference is, to steal cliche, like night and day.
Shadow detail is still somewhat poor, but black levels are much cleaner and improved (though they're still a bit subpar). Nice edges and great three dimensionality remain, but damn if far off backgrounds don't become anything but blurs of color. My biggest gripe here has to be the amount of noise that can invade shots, regardless of lighting. At least the artifacts don't come out to play this time around. If you bought the Optimum disc (and ever want to watch this again), congratulations, a double dip is now a necessity.
The strength of the UK import lay in its audio, with a solid (though not superb) DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. Magnolia's release of the film yet again trumps its foreign counterpart, with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that improves on its counterpart. Dialogue doesn't have any problems with clarity or room dynamics, while directionality is all quite proper and accurate. Rears get nice random noises, though not too much movement, considering some of the actions we see on screen. Bass levels aren't constant, but they come to win when they appear, creating some nice unsettling ambience, and some nice vibrations underfoot. It's not a rip-roaring mix, and it could have been more, but considering the low budget nature of the film, it sounds quite nice.
Sorry if this supplement section takes a few potshots. After a while, watching these features can get on one's nerves if you're not seriously into this film. Additionally, tidbits get repeated over and over, sometimes featuring 100 percent recycled footage from a previous extra.
Wanna hear something funny? Not once have I mentioned the worst part of 'Survival of the Dead' in this review. Do you like horses? Do you think zombies like horses? Do you think braindead zombies, who can't even talk, who probably shit themselves endlessly, can ride a fucking horse? That's right. We've seen Bub rationalize and associate, and Big Daddy become somewhat a leader, a communicator, which were both kind of fun, but we've never seen anything so stupid, in all of Romero's films, as a zombie that rides a horse. Until now. I suspect that's Romero's way of giving us fans the middle finger, as he rolls around in his pile of money and randomly throws ten words together to get the synopsis of his next film.
Magnolia, at least, treats us great, as their Blu-ray release puts the Optimum Region B release to shame, easily trumping it in video quality, besting it in audio, and utterly destroying it in supplements. Best yet, this is a Blu-ray that actually has a purpose for BD-Live! In short, this is one of those perfect examples of a good disc for a bad flick. When the slipcover is better than the film itself, you know you're in dangerous territory.