‘Survival of The Dead’ Finds Zombies Running Afoul of Family Rivalries

Survival of the Dead movie poster

“We’re not gonna make it, humans I mean.”

 “It is in your nature to destroy yourselves

                                                                  -Edward Furlong & Arnold Schwarzenegger from “T2”

There was a 20-year gap between George Romero’s “Day of The Dead” and “Land of The Dead.” Some parents now have kids who are slightly older than the number of years Romero sought financing to make zombie movies on his own terms. But since “Land of The Dead,” Romero has been pumping out one living dead movie every other year. Talk about strong productivity. His latest flesh-eating opus is “Survival of The Dead” which looks at the rivalry between two families on an isolated island, struggling to maintain power as the zombies continue to outnumber them and reject their vegan ways.

Actually, we first get introduced to a group of mercenary National Guardsmen who appeared briefly in “Diary of The Dead” when they stole supplies from the protagonists as they traveled the deserted highway in their old Winnebago. These soldiers are lead by Sarge “Nicotine” Crockett (Alan van Sprang), and they are now on their own, struggling to survive in a god forsaken world. As a result, “Survival of The Dead” is the closest thing to a direct sequel this series has ever had.

These days, Romero is not trying to scare with these movies, and he even “Night of The Living Dead” was the only true horror movie of the bunch. These zombie movies act as a conduit for his social commentary which is both humorous and yet very bleak. In Romero’s point of view, it is only a matter of time before these “deadheads,” as one young boy calls them, devours what’s left of humanity. What can be said about us in the meantime?

Whereas “Diary of The Dead” was a clear take on the You Tube/social networking generation of today, the meaning behind “Survival of The Dead” is not as clear. It took me some time after watching the movie to get an idea of what Romero was attempting to accomplish. Apparently, this one was inspired by a 1958 western called “The Big Country” which follows a new man in town who gets caught up in a feud between two rival families over a valuable piece of land. The same thing happens here between the O’Flynns and the Muldoons, but their rivalry is amped up by the fact that many of the people they know and loved have died and come back to life as drooling flesh eaters.

The O’Flynns believe the zombies are dead and will never return to normal, and therefore must be destroyed. The Muldoons, however, believe they should be kept alive in the hope a cure can be found for them. Romero sees their sharp differences as symbolic of the state of our world today as we can’t agree without being disagreeable, and the lack of civility reigns over the ability for us to listen to one another.

With the Muldoons, things get a little confusing at times because they are not above shooting zombies dead if necessary, so their protection of these same beings threatens to make them utterly hypocritical. Then again, their hypocrisy may be the point. “Survival” goes along with one of the plot threads of “Land of The Dead” as it shows how zombies have evolved somewhat to where humans can now teach them things. What the Muldoons hope to do is teach these lumbering bodies to consume something other than human flesh. Whether or not they succeed is for you to find out.

When the National Guardsmen arrive on the island, they are caught in the middle of this conflict and provide a more objective point of view. All they want to do now is survive. They can take an island and make it their own, but they won’t hesitate to abandon it when it becomes overrun by unwelcome guests. They are also not about to get caught up in some family duel when they run a high risk of turning into the thing they blow away at close range.

Politically speaking, we are so seriously divided these days, and we believe the side we are on is right without any question. We just think the other side is full of horse dung and incapable of looking at the world objectively. In the meantime, the world is falling apart all around us, and we appear to be unable to pull together as a whole when a crisis hits. I’m sure we can all see by now it’s not the zombies who are going to do us in, but ourselves instead. That’s the way it has been from the start.

The budget for “Survival of The Dead” was around $4 million dollars; not a lot, but enough to give Romero total creative control over his content. I have to give him a lot of credit because he gives this movie a look which makes it look like it cost much more. I don’t know if this is because the scope he is shooting in is bigger than on his previous movies, but it looks more like it cost at least $20 million to make.

Plum Island almost seems like the land time forgot. Whereas on the mainland people are utterly consumed by technology and have made themselves a slave to it, these families live like they are still stuck in the Old West. You never see anyone other than the National Guardsmen with a laptop computer or an iPhone. They simply ride on their horses or in their cars, and they appear happy to be isolated from the rest of the world. Feminism also seems to not have been introduced yet to the island, and this is regardless of how Janet O’Flynn (Kathleen Munroe) is perfectly capable of taking care of herself without the help of a man. Leave it to Romero to always include strong female parts in his films.

Both families are Irish by the way. I’m not sure why Romero went this route, but perhaps it was to remind us how America is, and always has been, a land of immigrants. Their accents at times were a little too thick to where I couldn’t understand half of what they were saying, but as long as I got the gist of what was being said, I didn’t complain much.

There is a strong of familiarity which runs throughout “Survival of The Dead” in the themes and characters Romero employs throughout. Sarge “Nicotine” Crockett is close to being a doppelganger of Captain Rhodes from “Day of The Dead.” Janet O’Flynn is your basic strong willed female character who is in every “Living Dead” movie. And, of course, the movie ends the same way the others do with the zombies having more than enough room for leftovers. So really, there’s not a lot new here, but once you get past that, the movie is still fun.

The cast is the usual batch of no-name actors Romero prefers to use. I liked Kathleen Munroe and thought her to be very lovely, and I also liked Alan van Spring as the no-nonsense sergeant who manages to hold it together throughout. Kenneth Welsh also has a very strong presence here as Patrick O’Flynn, the patriarch of his family who gets thrown out but ends up coming back with the guardsmen for revenge. Athena Karkanis also makes a badass soldier out of Tomboy in the same way Jeanette Goldstein made an undoubtedly tough marine out of Vasquez in James Cameron’s “Aliens.” All in all, the cast does very good work here.

Many of you probably are wondering how gross the effects are in “Survival of The Dead.” Well, let’s just say the Fangoria fans will not be disappointed. One character makes creative use of a fire extinguisher to dispatch one flesh eating bastard. All the other characters have their own creative kills as they are equipped with the full knowledge that zombies need to be shot in the head to be killed. They are no longer terrified of the living dead as much as they are hopelessly annoyed by them, and the living dead exist more as a nuisance to them instead of a threat.

“Survival of The Dead” is not as good as “Diary,” and the themes and meanings behind this sequel are not easy to decipher at first. I’m not even going to bother comparing it to the original trilogy because it’s just going to take away from Romero was trying to accomplish here. I still enjoyed “Survival” for what it was, and there is something really inspiring about how Romero still makes these zombie movies after so many years. It’s like you could never make him give up on the chance to make another one after the box office disappointment of “Day of The Dead.” There is a way to make a movie all your own. It’s just that there is not as much money involved.

The movie’s last image of two men facing off at each other with their guns is a strong one as it illustrates the folly of rivalry, especially when it’s over things which become increasingly insignificant in the wake of a zombie apocalypse. Romero still has a bleak worldview of humanity, but he still manages to give this film some biting humor which keeps us entertained. It seems like all we can do is just survive and make it to another day. In his movies, this seems to be the best victory anyone can hope for.

* * * out of * * * *

Beyond Fest Returns with a Vengeance to Hollywood

Beyond Fest 2017 Poster Art JPG

The most popular genre film festival in the United States, Beyond Fest, is finally back in Hollywood, and movie fans could not be more excited. Starting on September 29th and going through October 10th, Beyond Fest will be reveling in cinematic madness at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood with screenings of classic movies and West Coast premieres of new ones, so you can expect a great 12 days of wonderful mayhem featuring special guests and restored versions of movies which were always meant to be seen on the silver screen. Co-produced by Shudder, the festival aims to raise funds for the non-profit American Cinematheque.

Among the most anticipated events this year will be Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” which will be presented in both its 4K restoration and its 35mm Italian cut. Argento will be making an appearance for this along with Udo Kier and Barbara Magnolfi. Arnold Schwarzenegger will also be on hand for the 30th anniversary of two of his most famous films, “Predator” and “The Running Man.” Two of horror’s greatest directors who passed away this year, George Romero and Tobe Hooper, will be honored with screenings of their most famous movies, “Night of the Living Dead” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

As for those new movies making their premiere at the festival, they include “Brawl in Cell Block 99” directed by S. Craig Zahler and starring Vince Vaughn, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” which is Yorgos Lanthimos’ follow-up to “The Lobster,” and the first couple of episodes of the Amazon Prime series “Jean-Claude Van Johnson” which, of course, stars Jean-Claude Van Damme, the Muscles from Brussels.

Tickets are now available through American Cinematheque and Fandango, and you can keep up with the festival’s latest developments on Facebook, Twitter, and their website.

Here are the movies being shown at Beyond Fest 2017:

BABY DRIVER

Director: Edgar Wright

Country: USA

Runtime: 102 min.

Year: 2017

GUESTS: Edgar Wright & Walter Hill in Person

 

BAD BLACK (free screening)

West Coast Premiere

Director: Isaac Nawibana

Country: Uganda

Runtime: 60 minutes / Year: 2016

 

BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM

Directors: Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski

Country: USA

Runtime: 76 min.

Year: 1993

GUESTS: Andrea Romano plus voice actors TBA in Person

 

BEST F(R)IENDS

World Premiere

Director: Justin MacGregor

Country: USA

Runtime: 95 min.

Year: 2017

GUESTS: Tommy Wiseau, Greg Sestero and Justin Macgregor in Person

 

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99

West Coast Premiere

Director: S. Craig Zahler

Country: USA

Runtime: 132 min.

Year: 2017

GUESTS: S. Craig Zahler, Vince Vaughn and Udo Kier in Person

 

DOUBLE IMPACT

Director: Sheldon Lettich

Country: USA

Runtime: 110 min.

Year: 1991 / 35mm

GUEST: Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sheldon Lettich in Person

 

THE DRIVER

Director: Walter Hill

Country: USA

Runtime: 90 min.

Year: 1978 / 35mm

GUESTS: Edgar Wright & Walter Hill in Person

 

HELLRAISER

Co-presented with Death Waltz Records + Friday Night Frights

Director: Clive Barker

Country: USA

Runtime: 94 min.

Year: 1987 / 35mm

 

ICHI THE KILLER – Digital Restoration

West Coast Premiere

Director: Takashi Miike

Country: Japan

Runtime: 129 min.

Year: 2001

 

HOWARD THE DUCK – 70mm

Director: Willard Huyck

Country: USA

Runtime: 110 min.

Year: 1986

GUESTS: Lea Thompson in Person

 

JEAN-CLAUDE VAN JOHNSON – Episodes 1 & 2

Presented by Amazon

World Premiere

Director: Peter Atencio

Country: USA

Runtime: 60 min.

Year: 2016

GUESTS: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Peter Atencio, Dave Callaham, Kat Foster, Moises Arias.

 

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER

West Coast Premiere

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Country: UK, Ireland

Runtime: 109 min.

Year: 2017

 

MAYHEM

West Coast Premiere

Director: Joe Lynch

Country: USA

Runtime: 86 min.

Year: 2017

GUESTS: Joe Lynch and cast in person

 

NAPOLEON DYNAMITE – THE BOOTLEGGED EDITION

Theatrical Premiere

Director: Jared Hess

Country: USA

Runtime: 96 min.

Year: 2004

GUESTS: Cast and crew in person

 

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD – 4K Restoration

West Coast Premiere

Director: George A. Romero

Country: USA

Runtime: 96 min.

Year: 1968

GUESTS: Mick Garris & Masters of Horror in Person

 

OPERA (aka TERROR AT THE OPERA)

Director: Dario Argento

Country: Italy

Runtime: 100 min.

Year: 1987

GUESTS: Dario Argento in Person

 

PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE

Co-presented with Creature Features

Director: Brian De Palma

Country: USA

Runtime: 92 min.

Year: 1974

GUESTS: Paul Williams in Person

 

PREDATOR

Director: John McTiernan

Country: USA

Runtime: 107 min.

Year: 1987 / 35mm

GUESTS: Arnold Schwarzenegger in Person

 

RAWHEAD REX 4K Restoration

Co presented with Cinematic Void and Friday Night Frights

West Coast Premiere

Director: George Pavlou

Country: USA

Runtime: 89 min.

Year: 1986

 

THE ROOM

Director: Tommy Wiseau

Country: USA

Runtime: 99 min.

Year: 2003

GUESTS: Tommy Wiseau, Greg Sestero and Guests in Person

 

THE RUNNING MAN

Director: Paul Michael Glaser

Country: USA

Runtime: 101 min.

Year: 1987 / 35mm

GUESTS: Arnold Schwarzenegger in Person

 

SUSPIRIA – 4K Restoration

Los Angeles Premiere

Director: Dario Argento

Country: Italy

Runtime: 100 min.

Year: 1977

GUESTS: Dario Argento, Udo Kier, Barbara Magnolfi in Person

 

SUSPIRIA – 35mm Italian Cut

Los Angeles Premiere

Director: Dario Argento

Country: Italy

Runtime: 98 min.

Year: 1977

GUESTS: Dario Argento and Barbara Magnolfi in Person

 

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE

Director: Tobe Hooper

Country: USA

Runtime: 83 min.

Year: 1974

35mm

GUESTS: Mick Garris & Masters of Horror in Person

 

SHUDDER THEATRE (at Egyptian Theatre)

78/52 (Free Screening)

West Coast Premiere

Director: Alexandre O. Philippe

Country: USA

Runtime: 91 min.

Year: 2017

 

BEFORE WE VANISH (Free Screening)

West Coast Premiere

Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Country: Japan

Runtime: 129 min.

Year: 2017

 

BETTER WATCH OUT (Free Screening)

West Coast Premiere

Director: Chris Peckover

Country: Australia, USA

Runtime: 85 min.

Year: 2016

 

COLD HELL (Free Screening)

West Coast Premiere

Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky

Country: Austria

Runtime: 92 min.

Year: 2017

 

THE GRAPES OF DEATH AKA Les Raisins de La Mort (Free Screening)

Director: Jean Rollin

Country: France

Runtime: 90 min.

Year: 1978

 

HAUNTERS: THE ART OF THE SCARE (Free Screening)

West Coast Premiere

Director: Jon Schnitzer

Country: USA

Runtime: 88 min.

Year: 2017

 

JAILBREAK (Free Screening)

West Coast Premiere

Director: Jimmy Henderson

Country: Cambodia

Runtime: 92 min.

Year: 2017

 

LES AFFAMES (Free Screening)

West Coast Premiere

Director: Robin Aubert

Country: Canada

Runtime: 100 min.

Year: 2017

 

MOHAWK (Free Screening)

West Coast Premiere

Director: Ted Geoghegan

Country: USA

Runtime: 91 min.

Year: 2017

 

MY FRIEND DAHMER (Free Screening)

West Coast Premiere

Director: Marc Meyers

Country: USA

Runtime: 107 min.

Year: 2017

 

REVENGE (Free Screening)

West Coast Premiere

Director:  Coralie Fargeat

Country:   France

Runtime:  108 min

Year:  2017

 

SEQUENCE BREAK (Free Screening)

West Coast Premiere

Director:  Graham Skipper

Country:   USA

Runtime:  108 min

Year:  2017

GUESTS: Graham Skipper, Cast and Crew in Person

 

THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE (Free Screening)

Co-presented by Etheria and Cinematic Void

Director: Amy Holden Jones

Country: USA

Runtime: 77 min.

Year: 1982

GUESTS: Amy Holden Jones in Person

Double Feature with SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II

 

THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II

Co-presented by Etheria and Cinematic Void

Director: Deborah Brock

Country: USA

Runtime: 77 min.

Year: 1987

GUESTS: Deborah Brock in Person

Double Feature with SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE

‘Diary of the Dead’ Has Romero Taking Aim at the Internet Generation

Diary of the Dead movie poster

I had an English teacher who once said, “We have all been mediatized. This is a generation that has been robbed of its innocence.” This has stayed with me since because nothing could be truer. She said this back in 1994, back when we had yet to fully discover the internet, and we were not yet addicted to Facebook, You Tube or our cell phones. She remarked of when she watched a trailer for “Far from Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog.” It looked like a very innocent movie, and yet there were teenagers in front of her who said, “This looks so lame!” As a result, she felt they were robbed of any chance of enjoying this movie as they were more interested in watching something which was its polar opposite. When you combine the loss of innocence to the ever-growing world of technology, it is apparent there is no going back to the way things were. We are now more “mediatized” than ever, and it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to live without the internet or cell phones.

This is the main sticking point of George Romero’s zombie flick, “Diary of The Dead,” as he takes aim at a generation so sucked into You Tube and of watching things not just from a distance, but an emotional distance as well. We have become so enamored of watching disasters and car crashes from afar to where it appears we have been robbed of our ability to actually help others. As a result, Romero’s vision of humanity is especially bleak as he wonders if it is even worth saving.

The movie starts off as a film within a film as we watch a horror movie turned documentary called “The Death of Death.” The horror film itself is not going well as everything is behind schedule and the crew and actors are restless. All of a sudden, they hear on the news of the dead coming back to life, and everything changes forever. Some head home, and others head to the college to rescue their girlfriends. From then on, it’s a race for survival as the world is soon overrun by zombies, or so the internet and television tells them. What are they gonna believe?

“Diary of The Dead” could be seen as being released too late as “Cloverfield” had arrived in theaters just before. Both films are shot in a handheld style, but whereas “Cloverfield” used the technique as a gimmick, “Diary of The Dead” uses it as a commentary on our fascination with watching the worst life has to offer. Many people went crazy and beyond nauseous with the camerawork in “Cloverfield,” but those same people will be relieved to see Romero and his Director of Photography Adam Swica have reined it in to where it shouldn’t alienate the audience.

The film crew on “The Death of Death” is made up of different characters. There’s the director, Jason (Joshua Close), who believes if it didn’t happen on camera, it never happened at all. There’s his girlfriend, Debra (Michelle Morgan), who gets increasingly annoyed at his filming everybody, Tony (Shawn Roberts) who always looks like he is prepared to beat Jason to death, and there’s the drunken film professor, Maxwell (Scott Wentworth), who looks upon everything with a bemused detachment. What Romero succeeds in doing as a writer is giving us characters who aren’t simply types. If they come across as clichéd, he and the actors subvert those clichés as each character becomes increasingly unpredictable in their actions.

Romero also gives us strong characters who are females and minorities. He started doing this years ago with “Night of The Living Dead,” and he continues this tradition here. The female character who is the strongest in “Diary” is Debra as she is driven to get back to her family and is not about to get sucked into watching everything through a camera lens. Michelle Morgan gives this movie its best performance, and she also narrates the film within the film which gives you a pretty good idea of what happens to her character in the end (or does it?).

While the crew ventures home in an old and stuffy Winnebago, they run into all sorts of people who are quickly learning how to survive in a world being overrun by zombies. They run into a squad of African Americans who have taken over a small town and refuse to leave. This is because, for once, they have power over something they have never power over before, and you could see it as a revenge for all they have been put through over the years. There is also a deaf Amish man who provides some of the funniest moments as he blows up zombies with dynamite before introducing himself to the frenzied group of film students.

What makes these “Dead” movies so relevant even after four decades is they are really social commentary movies designed as zombie movies. Romero looks at how society is enslaved by its own wants, needs, beliefs and prejudices in. “Night of the Living Dead” dealt with civil rights and gave us a black man as the chief protagonist, something you didn’t see in movies back then. His ultimate destiny at the film’s climax said much about the times when the movie was released. “Dawn of The Dead” dealt with our quest for materialism, wealth, and of having everything we could possibly want, and it looked at how it leaves us feeling as empty and dead as the zombies who look to tear their way into the mall for fresh human flesh. “Day of The Dead” dealt with the paranoia and crazed determination of the military and its inherent sexism. Then you had “Land of The Dead” where Romero went after the wealthiest people of all and how selfishly involved they are in their own interests, and it served as a huge criticism of Reganomics which gave us the great lie of how this great wealth and riches could be yours even though this would never be the case.

Now with “Diary,” Romero looks at our addiction to watching the unthinkable instead of doing anything to stop it. You have to look at all of Romero’s “Dead” movies in context to see they are really a long chronicle about the decline of western civilization. It all started with civil rights and the reaction to it, and it’s been downhill ever since. To call this latest film bleak is a severe understatement. Romero doesn’t seem to hold out much hope for the human race, and the last scene questions whether humans are really worth saving.

If you’re wondering about the blood and gore, there is a good deal of it in “Diary” even though it is not on the same level as “Dawn” or “Day.” Still, there are some good kills throughout, and the characters make good use of a scythe as well as a bow and arrow. Romero, after all these years, doesn’t skimp on the gory stuff. However, it still takes these characters way too long to figure out the best way to defeat a zombie, which is to shoot it in the head.

The other interesting thing about “Diary” is the way the characters and their reality are drawn out. Whereas in “Cloverfield” where there was a chance for safety and victory against what was attacking New York, there is no real hope for anyone in here. Whether or not they make it home, they quickly realize this is a conflict which will never cease. It will just get worse and worse until there is nothing left. “Diary” forces you to think about what you would do if you were in this situation, and this makes the movie all the more terrifying.

One big difference in this specific “Dead” film is, unlike the others, there is no military presence. None of the characters have a clear idea of whether or not there is even a military left. They are left to fend for themselves in a world which has gone dead on them, and their only link to the world is technology and the internet. But with everyone voicing their opinions through videos and blogs, who is to be believed when they’re so many different opinions circling all over? All you have left is chaos and anarchy, and every man and woman for themselves. The characters in this movie are smart enough to recognize this, and this makes the events for them all the more suffocating.

I liked “Diary of The Dead” a lot, and it shows Romero is still a strong force in the realm of independent filmmaking. While the first three “Dead” movies are pretty much untouchable at this point, I would put this one ahead of “Land of The Dead” which I thought was good but may have been encumbered by too much studio interference from Universal Pictures. While Universal gave Romero the money he had been begging for years to get, he’s back to his indie roots this time around and seems a lot more comfortable as a result. The movie’s pace does slow in its last half which had me a bit restless, and some moments last longer than they should have, but these are minor complaints at best.

Regardless of how bleak Romero’s worldview continues to get in each “Dead” movie, there is something to be said for his efforts to spend decades raising money to make them. There was a big lull between “Day” and “Land,” and this shows his endless determination to see his vision reach the screen one way or another. And here he is 40 years later, making a new zombie movie for generations old and new. There may be room for another one Romero zombie yet, and there is hope to be had even if our world continues falling apart. I wouldn’t mind seeing him do one more, but I hope it comes out before the apocalypse hits us.

* * * ½ out of * * * *