Sunday, September 13, 2009

Toronto FilmFest Reviews: Survival of the Dead

Or as the schedulers insisted on calling it, "George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead". Probably because Romero is now officially a resident of Toronto, which was celebrated yesterday with one of our traditional Zombie Walks (yes, Toronto has a tradition of Zombie Walks) and a free screening of NotLD in Yonge-Dundas square. Very cool.

Romero's one of those directors who, tragically, can never get out from under the shadow of that one iconic masterpiece. Granted, he's sort of encouraged it the last few years by making a new string of sequels; like many, I support these more out of the hope that he's using these to scare up funding than because I'm eager to see more Romero zombie movies. I didn't even see "Diary of the Dead", but "Day" and "Land", while not without their strengths, seemed like a case of diminishing returns.

Still: it's not like you can't have a teeny little reptile brain tingle at the idea of going in to see a new Romero zombie movie, especially with a Midnight Madness crowd.

The good news is: "Survival" is quite possibly better than any "Dead" movie since "Dawn"...for the first 2/3rds or so. The bad news is that that last third goes seriously off the rails.

The movie opens with two parallel threads. The first is about a group of soldiers, lead by "Nicotine" Crocket (Alan Van Sprang), who go AWOL in the early days of the zombie uprising. The second is about the inhabitants of Plum Island, way out in the Atlantic coast (the exact location is left vague, but the incredibly thick accents make it clear that they're somewhere near Newfoundland or Nova Scotia). Two rival clans have lived here since time immemorial, the Muldoons and the O'Flynns, and the dead rising have only exacerbated bad feelings between the two. Patrick O'Flynn (Kenneth Welsh, I think--the imdb is a bit vague on this movie), the patriarch of his group, has set busily to gunning down the risen dead with extreme prejudice, but Seamus Muldoon (I can't find the actor's name!), his longtime rival, has a different attitude. The undead Muldoons are still Muldoons, he says, and he won't see them harmed if there's some chance of curing or rehabilitating them. O'Flynn obviously finds this attitude dangerous, and the two come to a standoff that sees O'Flynn, outgunned, exiled from the island.

A few weeks later, O'Flynn has become the sensation of the internet (yes, this is early enough in the zombie upheaval that there's still an internet) by offering people transportation to the supposed safety of Plum Island from the marina where he's set up shop. Nic and his squadron, who have basically descended into banditry, decide to take him up on his offer. Of course, O'Flynn isn't exactly above stealing himself: his price for a boat is "everything you've got". The army folks clash with his men, and the end result is the destruction of O'Flynn's operation, with the captain joining the reluctant army folks on their trip back to Plum. Of course, given Seamus's methods, the island isn't exactly likely to be a zombie-free paradise.

As mentioned, this movie starts very strong. There's still a little too much of the goofiness that marred "Land" for me, and it's always a little distracting to see stuff like the internet showing up in a Romero Dead movie, but it's a solidly constructed action/gore flick, with some neat zombie kills (a few of which are practically unrelated vignettes, like one random guy who tries "fishing" for zombies, with...mixed results). It's also got probably the most elaborate plot of any of the Dead movies so far, which is oddly satisfying. Unfortunately, as also mentioned, the movie goes badly awry in the last third. I can even pinpoint exactly where: it's a scene involving a revelation about O'Flynn's daughter, Janet (Kathleen Munroe), which feels like Romero just pulled it out of his butt as he wrote it. From that point on, the character becomes a lead weight around the movie's neck, partly due to Munroe's acting (not that the script does her any favours), and partly due to some incredibly stupid decisions the character makes; yeah, people make bad decisions in a Romero flick, but this is like slap-your-head "OH COME ON" stupid, where something happens that everyone (except the character) can see coming. Romero's trying to use her as a symbol of hopeless naivete to play off his typically cynical view of human nature, but that doesn't work if you have to stack the deck by making her an idiot. By this time, the feud between the O'Flynns and the Muldoons has just become silly, removing any power from the climax; my audience was laughing, and I don't think it was with affection.

But then again, they did cheer at the end, so maybe I'm being too hard on it. Still: I don't think the old Romero is coming back, at this point. Like this movie, he's continuing to stagger on out of habit long after the spark has fled, like some kind

...wait, it'll come to me...

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