Survival of the Dead plays embarrassingly like a parody of the yukfests George A. Romero’s Dead movies have inspired over the years. The film, picking up “six days after the dead began to walk,” follows the rogue army brigade that briefly intersected with the camera-wielding horndogs from the undervalued Diary of the Dead to an island off the coast of Delaware, where tensions flare hotter than ever between the paterfamilias of two ever-sparring, gun-wielding clans: the O’Flynns and the Muldoons. It’s a whole lot of blood-splattered blarney, with the rising dead still chomping at the bit but producing scant symbolic friction. They’re almost beside the point this time, and when their skulls are blown to smithereens, it’s with a flippant gusto that will satisfy only diehard Romero fans who still dream of being cast as zombies in one of the maestro’s movies.
Romero’s Dead films, even a weakling like Land of the Dead, are dense state of the union addresses, inquiries into our sense of humanity in times of crises and the moral distress provoked by our damning infatuations with race, military power, commercial spending, and technology. Survival immediately stands apart from its predecessors for having almost nothing of value to add to this metaphorically fraught canon of horror fiction. You spend the duration of the film hoping for a cogent theme to materialize, but Romero gives us only hints of one, sans follow through—like religion, the flimsily conveyed reason behind Seamus Muldoon’s guarding of “dead heads.” In the end, what most obsessively fixates the filmmaker is meaninglessly soap-operatic reveals and the bloodless banter between friends and enemies alike. You cringe when you should be titillated.
Arriving on Plum Island by ferry boat over zombie-infested waters, and with a predictably motley crew in tow, the nihilistic Sgt. “Nicotine” Crocket (Alan Van Sprang) confronts the dead relatives of the island’s inhabitants in the same shrugging mode of Romero’s direction, offing them with the sort of by-the-numbers comic zeal meant to flatter the audience’s thirst for seeing ghoulies blown to bits in never-before-seen ways. But more depressing than Romero’s almost pathetic concession to his fans is the befuddled storyline that suggests nothing more than a lame adaptation of the Hatfield/McCoy feud. The zombies don’t affront anyone’s preconceived notions about territory and gender; they’re just supporting players in a turf war one suspects would have played out similarly without them in the picture.
Survival could have been a canny inquiry into the nature of American folklore, or how the zombie plague warps people’s notions of family. But the film remains scattershot throughout. Where Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh) insists on exterminating the island’s dead heads, his rival Seamus insists on rounding them up in hopes of domesticating them, but the latter’s family tradition of photographing kin upon their death scans as an awfully paltry rationale for his inexplicably executed experiment. Seamus’s plan is neither realistically humane nor irreverently pathological, just a means for Romero to half-heartedly regurgitate the Pavlovian conditioning scenes from Day of the Dead, with Seamus hoping to entice the dead with the taste of horse meat. Is the film then an elaborate setup for a seventh Dead film: a zombie version of Black Beauty?