I’ve always had a weak spot for zombie movies, which give me permission to wallow in guilt-free survival fantasies. I mean, how bad can it be to kill somebody who’s already dead, especially when their whole purpose in un-life is to snack on your brains?
Like a lot of people, I’m particularly fond of George A. Romero’s zombie movies. I like their lightly scruffy, homemade feel. I like how they’re always set in or near the blue-collar town of Pittsburgh, Romero’s home base for most of his adult life, and how their heroes are generally can-do types, working-class or middle-class people used to relying on themselves—just the kind of folks you want to hang out with during a zombie invasion. But most of all, I like the way Romero uses his zombie movies to say something about the cultural soup we’re all simmering in.
Romero has always made his zombie movies more for money than for love, so they’re a little hit and miss. Diary of the Dead felt dashed off and didactic, one good idea stretched way too thin. Three years before that, Romero came up with what may have been his best zombie movie of all, the ferocious Bush-era satire Land of the Dead.
I say “may have been” because I can’t always trust my memory of his movies, which often resonate so deeply with me that it takes a while to see their flaws. A few years ago, I re-watched Dawn of the Dead, which I’d loved on its release, and was surprised to see how bad it was, though the images of zombies stumbling through a shopping mall still struck me as a pretty great satirical comment on consumerism run amok. And though I always like Night of the Living Dead when I watch it, I can’t recreate the thrill of my first encounter: the raw scariness of my first sight of zombies lumbering out of the woods to grab for people running through a graveyard or cowering in a boarded-up house; the satisfaction that the African-American friend I saw it with got from seeing a black hero, still a rare thing at the time; and the resonance of its Vietnam-era vibe of things falling apart and fascistic authority figures who just made things worse. That point of view wasn’t uncommon in movies at the time, but I don’t remember ever having seen it in a horror movie.
My first reaction to Survival of the Dead was to like but not love it. The imagery is not as intense as some of what Romero has done (the zombies living underwater here, for example, aren’t nearly as creepy as the ones who rose up out of the river in Land of the Dead to storm the gated city. Still, Survival of the Dead has me thinking the next morning—always a sign of a good movie. But I’m wondering whether I’d like it more if Romero weren’t challenging my beliefs this time around, instead of reinforcing them as he usually does. Being challenged can be a good thing, of course, but I brushed off the film’s warnings (about needing to make peace with our zombie brothers) like so many pesky flies until I got home and started thinking about it.
The zombies in Survival of the Dead aren’t the main problem: we are. Specifically, the human tendency to start wars that just won’t end, and demonizing the enemy to excuse the killing. Once again, Romero has zoomed in on one of the biggest issues of the moment, but he put enough of a twist on it to get past my knee-jerk reaction and make me question my own prejudices a bit. The heads of two old Irish clans on an island that’s belonged solely to the two families for generations, Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh) and Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) have always kept their distance from each other. When the zombie plague comes to the island, that distance erupts into a full-fledged feud as they part ways on how to deal with the dead: O’Flynn wants to shoot them all in the head so they’re dead for good and can’t transmit the virus to the living; Muldoon wants to keep them locked up so they can’t do any harm while he tries to find a way to get them to eat other animals and leave people alone.
Like the captive zombies in Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead, the zombies in this installment are more victims than victimizers. They can still be pretty scary when they show up in droves, but one at a time, they annoy people more than they terrify them. The living kill them casually, almost cockily, like soldiers too long at a war. But Muldoon doesn’t see zombies as alien creatures. He sees them as part of the clan he’s pledged to protect—a pledge that doesn’t end with death.
Survival of the Dead sets you up to sympathize with O’Flynn and hate Muldoon, siding with the interests of your own kind in this fight for survival. But it keeps pushing that prejudice to the surface and prodding at it, so you can’t just settle complacently into your seat to cheer on your team.
Romero’s zombie movies have been doing something quietly subversive for a while. Even as he finds inventive new ways to blow the creatures away, he challenges the impulse that makes us want to see them slaughtered, in much the way that James Whale’s Frankenstein movies made us empathize with the monster.
Damn, George. Are you trying to tell me I can’t demonize anybody?
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.