Elevate Difference

Survival of the Dead

Pop films that take on politics tend to do so as an add-on and go all over the place. Since I have come late to zombie films and director George Romero, perhaps I am being unfair to Romero and his Survival of the Dead, the latest of his zombie films, in expecting consistent politics from a gore fest, but perhaps dystopia deserves its due.

The only zombie film I have ever seen—if “seen” can mean glimpsed out of the corner of a fearful child’s eye—was a production rerun on afternoon television sometime in the 1950s, in my case, to keep children content while they waited for a school bus. However, like Romero, I was a fan of pre-code horror comic books. A gloomy disposition predisposes me to dystopia. With this risk factor, perhaps I was slated to become zombie food.

The movie takes place in the near future in which a disease has conferred a horrid form of immortality on the dead. National Guardsman Sarge (Alan Van Sprang) is on killing duty in the morgue, where bodies spring to murderous life. A fellow Guardsman who refuses to shoot a buddy-turned-zombie is summarily executed; Sarge and a few comrades say enough already—actually, “I didn’t sign up for this”—and go AWOL into a lawless United States, where the only protection is individual armed self-protection, but nighttime comics telling zombie jokes can still be downloaded on a PC. Surviving as thieves, Sarge and his band are busy not only killing zombies coming back to life, but also dealing with the generalized violent breakdown of society.

After a confrontation with another band of renegades, a young man (Devon Bostick) who survives the encounter (and provides some additional snarky, intergenerational conflict) joins up with them to take off in an armored van with a safe full of money. The posse ends up heading for Plum Island (ostensibly off the coast of Delaware, though the film was shot in Canada) because an Internet huckster, Patrick O’Flynn, is luring social outcasts, now much of the population, there to rob them. O’Flynn has been exiled from the island as a result of a long-standing family feud with another clan. (How two Irish clans got on this island in the first place is left unexplained, but there are hints of religious fundamentalism and right-wing survivalism.) A great subplot is the hopeless courting of the lesbian tomboy by her would-be Latin lover/comrade in arms and the genuine nonsexual affection between them.

Romero is quoted as saying the movie is about war, but it could as easily be about too permissive gun laws justified by the Second Amendment. Or out-of-control conflicts over different strategies for dealing with a serious threat—the overlay of the feud. Or it could just be a corkboard for any one-off social commentary—about professional salaries or the narrow perspectives of small towns—that can be stuck in a spot in the plot.

The real Plum Island, off the coast of Long Island, is the site of the federal Animal Disease Center run by the Department of Homeland Security, and at one time a secret bio-weapons research facility. There, any wild mammal is said to be shot on sight. This is O’Flynn’s solution to the zombie problem, while his rival, Muldoon, wants to rehabilitate them.

“Zombie”—as in banks—is fast becoming an overused metaphor. In the book Imaginal Machines, cultural theorist Stevphen Shukaitis presents an analysis of the capitalist transformation of human workers into labor power, living into dead labor; cooptation/recuperation of social movements into nightmare versions of themselves; and the question of whether such altered movements could be truly revitalized or need to be put out of their misery—all strung, along with their sources, on the extended metaphor of zombification.

Personally, I like zombies better as the main attraction, when they are actors in heavy makeup “getting their brains” blown out in movies; and when social commentary, however scattershot, is the sideshow.

Written by: Frances Chapman, June 10th 2010

What an excellent review. I'm a horror film aficionado, and a complete nutter for all things Romero, but I could not help but see some excellent points raised in this review. I especially appreciated the second to last paragraph, and now feel compelled to read that book.

Still looking forward to seeing "SOTD." Also looking forward to going back through the FR archives and reading more of your reviews! :)

  • Fellow reviewer M. Brianna Stallings