George A. Romero had a firm grasp on the zombie genre back in the day, but now we live in a world overrun with the living dead. Is there still enough room in these parts for Romero’s Dead series? Of course, but his empire is clearly toppling over as zombie films with crisper dialogue, better effects and more compelling twists emerge. Survival of the Dead is a bit of a misstep, but still offers an experience in the vein of the previous installments, making it easy to embrace.
The focus of Romero's sixth film in the sequence is Plum Island. It's a war zone for the location's two ruling families, the O'Flynn's and the Muldoons. The leaders of each, Patrick O'Flynn (Kenneth Welsh) and Shamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), have been at each other’s throats since they were kids. When the whole zombie craze consumed the world, their boyhood rivalry turned into a fight for survival. Patrick's goal is to rid the island of the living dead entirely for the sake of safety, but Shamus wants to preserve them in the hopes a cure is found. The Muldoons overpower the O'Flynns and in an effort to seize control of the territory, exile Patrick.
Meanwhile, Sarge (Alan Van Sprang), our sole crossover character, is still at it in the US. He appeared in the fifth film, Diary of the Dead, when he raided the main players' RV. With his comrades by his side, Tomboy (Athena Karkanis), Cisco (Stefano DiMatteo) and Kenny (Eric Woolfe), Sarge is still going about his business, using his military training to take whatever he wants and take out anybody who gets in his way, dead or alive. When the team comes across a video on the Internet advertising the serenity of Plum Island, they head for the coast. Before boarding a ferry, they bump into our old friend Patrick, who joins them on the excursion. When they arrive on Plum, it's not as Patrick left it; the virus has consumed most of the population and Shamus' venture seems to be a total disaster.
The big question is, is this just more of the same old stuff? Yes and no. Just about every scene comes packed with bullets to the head, blood, guts and everything else associated with zombie killing. Romero doesn't hold back in the least. At one point Sarge ignites a zombie through the belly with a flare gun, ultimately setting his head ablaze, which Sarge finds to be the perfect cigarette lighter. This type of outlandish behavior has somewhat lost its effect and is further tarnished by the use of shoddy CGI. The new material in the visual department comes from a surprising source, the mistreatment of zombies. They're out for flesh, but seeing a turned mailman chained to a mailbox forced to repetitively deliver the mail every few seconds is a little sad to watch.
But this is what keeps the film fresh. If Romero had just stuck to showing Sarge and the troops running around blowing zombies to bits, it'd grow tiresome, but he didn't. He develops a thoughtful scenario that provides enough originality that it takes this overused genre and keeps it entertaining. Shamus' stance on how to handle the zombie invasion is the most fascinating element. What begins as a noble effort to preserve his family and neighbors is almost completely distorted until it resembles slavery. Still, a dignified element of Shamus’ effort that remains as he attempts to teach zombies to eat animal flesh, hoping to curb their need for human meat.
Romero clearly knows how to work with what he’s got, but nowadays it’s not enough. Fans of the series will appreciate this noble continuation attempt, but newcomers will have a hard time seeing past the flaws. The acting is weak all around. Everyone is guilty of taking their roles way too seriously and pouring on the melodrama. Making matters worse, the dialogue they’re working with is often laughable. Romero tries so hard to create emotions, parts of the film feel like a parody. Complicating matters further, the plot often trips over its multiple offshoots. On the main road we’ve got the whole family rivalry on Plum and that intersects with everything from sexual tension to finding over a million dollars to discovering someone has a twin. These secondary stories are often underdeveloped and serve little purpose, and some end up being downright silly.
Just as it comes down to the O’Flynns or the Muldoons on Plum Island, it’ll come down to hardcore Romero fans versus the rest in theaters. You either love his style and his ideas or find them ridiculous. There’s something here for enthusiasts to latch onto and enjoy, but to newcomers or those lacking an appreciation for Romero’s work, Survival of the Dead is a zombie soap opera.