By the time George A. Romero finally managed to secure enough finance to enable him to film another entry in his seminal "Dead" franchise, back in in 2005 (having forcibly missed the planned Nineties' entry through his inability to conjure up enough backing for such a project during that whole decade, despite the firm fan enthusiasm for doing so), the walking dead - or a hyped-up, raging, sprinting sub-species of such creatures - had seemingly taken over the cinematic world and the Horror genre, thanks mainly to the hugely influential "28 Days Later" and a brasher, simplified remake of his own "Dawn of the Dead"; so much so that, ironically, Romero's own 'official' fourth plunge into the genre, "Land of the Dead", seemed to fall just a little flat, despite this new popularity for the flesh-munching film zombie having been instrumental in providing the determinedly independent Pittsburgh film-maker with the biggest budget he'd ever been given to work with. Since then, it seems there has been something of a regrouping and a rethink in the Romero camp. The emergence of Digital Video in the Noughties has given a huge kick of inspiration to indie film-makers as the expanded possibilities now afforded them become ever more apparent - the medium being seemingly tailor-made for someone of Romero's sensibility. Sure enough, with a fraction of the budget afforded him on "Land ..." the director decided to return to ground zero, so to speak, and make his own remake of the original "Night of the Living Dead" - but this time seeding it with the themes and social concerns of the modern age, rather than those of 1969.
The ensuing "Diary of the Dead" came only two years after "Land ..." and signaled the end of Romero's original stated plan of returning to the genre every decade in an attempt to sum up the politics of the times, and saw him now turn to appropriating the fictional documentary methods first made mainstream with the success of "The Blair Witch Project" a decade earlier. Again, by the time Romero came to this form, it was already looking fairly overused, and Romero's film was arguably completely overwhelmed by the visceral, Spanish-made terror picture "REC", which emerged at around the same time and used the same device to stunning effect. Nevertheless, Romero's meditation on the Internet age and the film's consideration of how the emergence of the original zombie plague might be processed by the You Tube generation, did give the director some new ideas to play with; and now, another two years later, Romero's accelerated pace of film-making has produced yet another zombie entry, also shot on Digital Video, but this one abandoning the faux video documentary look of "Diary of the Dead" in favour of a more classical approach to the medium.
"Survival of the Dead" is shot in a lush-looking 2.35:1 aspect ratio, with the DV image spruced-up to look as film-like as possible. Sweeping helicopter shots abound, and nicely composed tracking shots of a beautiful pastoral-looking setting now dominate the mise en scene, with the unexpectedly lush film score being memorable and atmospheric. Plus, there is not a hyperactive, shaky-looking video image anywhere to be seen! The result is like a breath of fresh air in these days when the oversubscribed, generic zombie movie formula has become so bogged down in cliche and lack of imagination. Some may baulk at the scaled-down ambitions of the project; it's less like a zeitgeist picture than any other Romero zombie film, though it is technically the first direct sequel in the series, as some of the protagonists did also briefly appear in "Diary of the Dead" as the same characters. Instead, Romero has turned this entry in the franchise into a playful pseudo Western, adopting the rugged aesthetics and a familiar story template from that genre and adding zombies to the mix to give us an intriguing and often inventive (occasionally even playfully comic) story that still has that familiar Romero tinge of cynicism about it - revolving around the rogue-military-unit-turned-highwaymen first seen in "Diary of the Dead", after they become involved in the inter-family feuding of two bitter island clans.
On the remote, bucolic Plum island, situated off the coast of Delaware, Irish-American patriarch Patrick O'Flynn (Kenneth Welsh) leads a band of vigilante zombie killers, ruthlessly re-killing the re-animated dead and hunting out and destroying those that may be secretly harboured by family members unable to let go of their undead loved ones - all in a fervid effort to clense the region of the plague that has now rendered much of the rest of the country uninhabitable. His daughter Janet (Kathleen Monroe) is unhappy with the zeal and fundamentalist verve with which her father carries out his self-appointed task, and when he and his gang of brothers break into the home of a family who are keeping their zombie children chained up in an attic bedroom, the resulting bloodbath inclines her to loose faith with her murderous relatives, choosing instead to join up with the O'Flynns' age-old sworn rivals the Muldoons (lead by the equally pugnacious Seamus Muldoon, played by Richard Fitzpatrick) in casting out her own dad and her uncles - forcing them to leave the island for an uncertain future on the zombie-infested mainland.
Here, O'Flynn comes into contact with a rogue military unit led by Colonel "Nicotine" Crockett (Alan van Sprag), which is trying to secure a horde of cash located in an abandoned security vehicle at the docks. Eventually, Sprocket and his disparate rag-tag band of army deserters learn about the haven of Plum from O'Flynn, who, in a series of video messages broadcast over the Internet, has been encouraging people to flee there purely to annoy his Muldoon rival who is otherwise now in complete control of the island. Sprocket and his men (and one woman) decide that the island sounds like a good place to escape the mayhem that is enveloping society, and O'Flynn sees hooking up with them as a perfect opportunity for regaining his former position and driving out his rival Muldoon with the aid of his new friends' military muscle. Upon arriving back on the island the group is nonplussed to find the once-pristine countryside now completely overrun with zombies, who blankly continue to act out their former jobs in a lumbering ghost-like haze (a zombified postman attempts to post the same letter in a homestead mailbox over and over again). O'Flynn tells them that this is the end result of Muldoon's crazy religious commitment to refusing the killing of zombies whenever possible; instead they are kept chained up or corralled, until such time as someone somewhere can find a way of encouraging them to feed on non-human meat! Sprocket and his men are soon caught in the middle of a dangerous stand-off between Muldoon's men and O'Flynn's regrouped zombie killers that can only result in more chaos being unleashed on the fragile island community.
"Survival of the Dead" benefits greatly from the new lease of life Romero seems to have found in the DV format, while circumventing the rather unappealing appearance digital video can sometimes have. The bucolic setting gives the film an entirely different feel to any other movie in Romero's zombie oeuvre and the director takes full advantage of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio to furnish it with a spacious, panoramic feel, in marked contrast to the claustrophobic siege settings he usually works with and which have since become unthinking mainstays of the genre for the endless supply of copycat zombie flicks that now get churned out, seemingly by the dozen. The director still has the capacity to come up with new and surprising ideas, it seems, in his treatment of the zombies themselves; still doggedly working with the slow, shuffling variety, he actually has more scope for wider forms of zombie/human interaction than the superficially terrifying, but actually much more limited, super-fast rage-filled sort. We get all sorts of bizarre and odd zombie imagery in this film, which is arguably worth more than the lack of extreme gore some have criticised the film for. The surreal sight of zombie kids in pyjamas, locked and chained into their cribs for the night by their still-adoring parents who can't bring themselves to face the reality of their offspring's undead status, is creepy enough, but Romero also furnishes the screen with offbeat scenes of redneck fishermen engaged in 'zombie fishing' - exploiting the idea seeded in "Diary of the Dead", where we see a swimming pool-full of undead creatures planted firmly to the pool floor, he depicts fishermen casting out hunks of bloody flesh on their fishing lines in order to snare underwater zombies for fun (it also makes a swim in the river rather a hazardous pastime, as one of Sprocket's men soon discovers). The zombie kill sequences are achieved with the help of a liberal dose of CGI - again, something the purists will no doubt query, but it does bring a new element to Romero's film, in that he is able to achieve some rather surrealistic, blackly comic zombie death sequences that may result in less overt goriness but so provide a far more original side to the film than we've seen in the genre for some time. Anything that gets the zombie flick away from rehashing the same old ideas again and again, has to be worth a shot and "Survival of the Dead", while in no way being anything other than a staunchly solid entry in the genre, does provide some arresting sights and a few new elements to zombie lore - and where else, for instance, will you see a horse riding zombie?
"Survival of the Dead" gets its debut in the UK on Optimum Home Entertainment's new DVD and Blu-ray release. The transfer is solid enough and the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound audio perfectly acceptable but the disc, in both DVD and Blu-ray formats, is completely bare bones with not even so much as a theatrical trailer to flesh it out. For those unable to wait for future special editions somewhere down the line, this is a perfectly fine-looking option though.