*. A much maligned film that disappointed critics and tanked at the box office. Did it deserve better?
*. You have to give Romero a lot of credit for one thing: he could have just kept re-making the same zombie movie over and over, following a formula, but he never took this route. Each of his zombie films has gone in a different direction and tried something new. No, it hasn’t always worked. But you still have to appreciate the attempt.
*. As I see it, he gets into trouble here for two reasons. First there is the absence of any sympathetic leads. The National Guard troop we met in Diary of the Dead, and in particular their leader “Sarge” Crocket, were very repellent figures, and they’re barely redeemed here. Both the O’Flynns and the Muldoons seem like narrow-minded rednecks with Irish accents (seeing as they are the only two families on the island we may suspect some issues relating to inbreeding among small population groups). The slacker kid played by Devon Bostick is an immediate pain in the ass and Jane/Janet is/are unbelievable. Who is there to like?
*. Romero considered this moral ambiguity to be a strength, seeing it (perhaps correctly) as being a more realistic presentation of character. But we’re not in a real world, and the people we meet are weirdos by any standard anyway. For example, What is Seamus Muldoon’s motivation? Is he doing God’s work? And why is Tomboy introduced as a sexed-up lesbian and then nothing made of it? Why bother?
*. The second problem I have is that Romero has clearly lost interest in his zombies. Much as in the Walking Dead television series (based on Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels), the zombies here are just furniture, a backdrop to play the human story against. They aren’t even particularly scary. In the movie’s first lines Sarge informs us that “we should have been afraid of them but we weren’t” because “they were easy enough to kill.” They’re no threat to the living unless being used as a weapon by one of the clans.
*. For some reason Romero is still sticking with the perverse idea that money, and in particular stacks of paper money, will mean something in the post-apocalyptic world. I don’t know why he has such a blind spot here. It made no sense at all in Land of the Dead and makes even less here.
*. Look, historically there have been many times when paper money has depreciated to the point where it has no value at all. Think Confederate dollars, the hyperinflated currency of Weimar Germany, or more recently what happened in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Money can become worthless. One would expect it to be worthless in a world as gone to hell as Romero describes. And yet he insists it has some significance.
*. It is a point that’s raised on the DVD commentary, but Romero offers no explanation for it. He does say that in Land of the Dead it was meant to signify that the Republicans were back in power and money was making a comeback, at least in the isolated world of Fiddler’s Green. But nothing is said of its value in this film. It seems he just needs a big pile of cash to operate as a kind of plot driver.
*. Another thing I can’t understand is the point of the Irish accents. Romero wasn’t using native Irish actors, so why bother? The general inspiration for the film was William Wyler’s The Big Country (1958), but why would wanting to do a zombie Western lead you to have a pair of Irish families feuding?
*. Much of the effects are now CGI, and not very good CGI at that. The collection of heads on stakes, for example, or the zombie with the burning head, don’t look convincing at all. And all three of the spectacular kill scenes are cartoonishly unrealistic. A rifle won’t disintegrate an entire head, leaving a scalp behind. Pumping a head full of fire extinguisher foam won’t cause it to explode. Shooting someone in the chest with a flare gun won’t make their head burst into flames.
*. Is Janet the only (living) woman left on Plum Island? There appear to be no female Flynns or Muldoons (unless I’ve missed something, the only other woman we see is the mother shot at the beginning).
*. In Land of the Dead we see the zombies walking underneath a river, so I really shouldn’t have been surprised to find out that they can just stand on the bottom of the ocean forever waiting for someone to swim by. But I was. I guess I always thought they were somehow still breathing.
*. Most of the problems can be marked down to the fact that the movie was a rush job, made very quickly (and very cheaply) to capitalize on the success (relative to its budget) of Diary of the Dead. As a result, Romero really didn’t have a concept in hand to develop (as he did with consumerism, economic inequality, and media overload in earlier films). Since Romero is professedly all about the concept, this sort of hamstrung the project to begin with, forcing him to fall back on other conventions (the Western, most obviously). Indeed in the Walking After Midnight documentary Romero expresses his frustration openly, feeling that he wasn’t getting everything he wanted done.
*. Does the title mean anything? If so, I’m not sure what. They didn’t even have a working title during filming, shooting it under the aegis ? of the Dead. According to the Walking After Midnight documentary no one knows where the title Survival of the Dead came from or who suggested it.
*. Day of the Dead was poorly received too. Might this movie be rediscovered at some point in the future? I doubt it, but anything is possible. The structure of the story isn’t bad, but there are too many things that don’t work, and the theme of conflict is too vague to add up to much. It took a long time, but I can’t help feeling Romero finally outgrew his zombies.