Weird Western Films: Survival of the Dead (2009)
There's a lot that is baffling about George Romero's "Survival of the Dead." Romero, of course, created the modern zombie movie with "Night of the Living Dead" in 1968, the first of a trilogy of beloved zombie films that wed horror to an oftentimes daffy sensibility for social commentary — a lot of people remember "Dawn of the Dead" as a deadpan parody of mindless consumerism, but forget the film includes a pie fight.
Romero rebooted his own series a few years ago with "Diary of the Dead," a film that used a zombie outbreak to satirize the culture of narcissism that has risen with social media — his characters could not stop taking selfies even when the dead rose from their graves. "Survival of the Dead" runs approximately parallel to "Diary," and briefly intersects with it, but most of the film's action takes place on a place called Plum Island off the coast of Delaware.
The island is split between two feuding Irish families, the O'Flynns and the Muldoons, and they are at war with each other about how to resolve the zombie outbreak that has plagued their island. The O'Flynns, led by "Twin Peaks" villain Kenneth Welsh, dress like Irish fisherman and scour the island for the walking dead; when they find a ghoul, they shoot it in the head.
In the meanwhile, the Muldoons dress like cowboys and are led by Richard Fitzpatrick, a religious bully who will not destroy the zombies, hoping instead for some miraculous salvation, but seems mostly motivated by the desire to be right about something that O'Flynn is wrong about.
So they have the zombie equivalent of a range war, lifted directly from the movie "The Big Country," which likewise was about sailors battling cowboys. The zombies here literally stand in for cattle — they are corralled into horse stalls and tied up in fields. Even by Romero standards, this is a deeply weird idea for a horror film, and neither critics nor audiences seemed to appreciate it.
It doesn't really work. Romero has admitted that having the island run by Irish patriarchs was mostly a vague gesture to Northern Ireland's Troubles — he wanted to have the film's feud reference a recent internecine conflict, and felt Jews and Arabs would be a bit too obvious.
As much as I like the idea that an entire East Coast island has been colonized by Irishmen who insist on dressing like characters from a 1958 western, it feels less like an inventive satiric detail than a strained metaphor. I guess I'm not mad about the idea that if you drop a group of Irish people anywhere in the world, they'll simply start fighting each other again, as though they never left Ulster. There was plenty of feuding on the part of the Irish in America, but it was rarely a recreation of the fight they left behind. As an example, often referenced in reviews of this film, there were the Irish McCoys who legendarily feuded with the Hatfields, but the Hatfields were from England. Irish-Americans developed new feuds in America; they didn't bring the old ones.
That being said, there is a lot of inventiveness in this film that works. Romero has longed worked with zombies that compulsively repeat simple actions from their lives when they were living — like a second-long loop of film that can be trigger to repeat itself. So Plum Island is filled with zombies going about their daily business, such a mailman, chained to a mail box, who constantly tries to stuff mail in it.
And there is the O'Flynn daughter, who died at some point and has been riding around on the back of a horse ever since, a grey figure that occasionally gallops through a scene, more like a cowgirl ghost than a zombie.
In most zombie films inspired by Romero, the monsters are mindless shamblers, staggering from place to place and only rising to action when they attack and devour a victim. But Romero's zombies retain a hint of their humanity in this reflexive need to engage in simplified human behavior, as though they still have some memory of having been alive.
This gooses the film a bit, in the way good horror does. This is a Weird Western in which the monsters are both genuinely haunting, with a whiff of tragedy. And, as if often the case with Romero, more human than some of the human characters.