Are George A. Romero’s late-career ghoul operas fatigued retreads of his seminal zombie classics, or eccentrically satirical twists on the genre tropes he pioneered? Survival of the Dead isn’t about to clear things up. Kicking off “six days after the dead began to walk,” this sixth entry in the decade-spanning Dead saga picks up on a strand from the previous film, following the rogue soldiers who had previously crossed paths with the vlogging youngsters in Diary of the Dead as they head into a Hatfield-McCoy territory of dueling clans and cowboy bellicosity. A post-apocalyptic ranch war may sound absurd even in the walking-dead netherworld, but if Jacques Rivette can teleport his kooky modernists to a pirate fortress (Noroît), why can’t Romero remake The Big Country with flesh-eaters? Alas, that premise turns out to be the most intriguing aspect of this slapdash project.
Last seen harassing YouTube junkies in Diary, Sgt. “Nicotine” Crockett (Alan Van Sprang) and his renegade squad here become reluctant mediators when they find themselves wedged between the O’Flynns and the Muldoons, feuding families at shotgun-loggerheads even as their Delaware island grows infested with shuffling ghouls. As usual, Romero uses the zombies less as a demonic threat than as a catalyst that exacerbates the tensions between groups of people, with diplomatic policy in the face of disaster as the half-buried subtext: The O’Flynn patriarch (Kenneth Welsh) insists on exterminating the undead, the head Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) rounds them up like cattle in hopes of domesticating them, and both are unable to ever admit error. Tentative hope rests with the younger characters (Kathleen Munroe, Devon Bostick), who may either break the circle of senseless patriarchal aggression or succumb to the spilled viscera all around them.
Where Diary played as a corrective to the I-am-a-camera meta-narcissism of The Blair Witch Project, Survival of the Dead appears more concerned with matching the zaniness of such Romero lampoons as Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. Humor has always had a place in Romero’s horror (think of the decaying mall dwellers in Dawn of the Dead), though the gags here reveal a distressingly shrugging attitude; when a zombified lass gallops across the screen on horseback and none of the characters so much as bats an eye, or when said lass is moments later revealed as the heroine’s twin sister, it’s hard not to think of the director flipping admirers the giant bird. The occasional trenchant idea (like the landowner’s “dead-head” wife kept chained in the kitchen) only makes you more impatient with Romero wasting his time with jokey shadows in what is, exploding skulls and munched limbs notwithstanding, easily the most bloodless of the Dead films.
Survival of the Dead will play on February 20 as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series. To purchase tickets, click here.