Since his 1968 zombie classic Night of the Living Dead brought seismic change to the horror landscape, director George Romero's "Dead" movies -- now totaling six in all, not counting an unofficial zombie-esque entry in The Crazies -- have become a case study in how genre films can comment on the times, smuggling in subtext on issues that straight dramas are reluctant to address head-on. Scratch the surface and find a withering satire of consumerism (1978's Dawn of the Dead) or a critique of Green Zone arrogance (2005's Land of the Dead) or, most recently, an attack on media-generated lies that doubles as a portrait of the YouTube generation (2007's Diary of the Dead).
With his new outing, though, the restless inspiration that brought Romero's previous incarnations to life is starting to look more like a force of habit. Though a handsomer, smoother-running operation than Diary -- which was all too content with its sloppy DIY aesthetic -- Survival of the Dead is a zombiefied zombie movie, roaming the countryside without a thought in its head. If there's any subtext here, it would take a lot of hard squinting to locate it.
As a twist on the subgenre itself, the film presents an intriguing idea -- What if zombies could be convinced to feast on something other than human beings? And if their behavior can be modified, then can they also be redeemed? -- but fails to follow through.
Picking up where Diary left off, Survival of the Dead shifts the focus to a handful of rogue National Guardsmen who were peripheral characters in the earlier film. With humans dying off at an accelerated rate -- 53 million every year, not counting the suicides and murders that arise from the chaos -- the soldiers, led by Sgt. "Nicotine" Crockett (Alan Van Sprang), seek refuge on a small island off the Delaware coast where the "dead heads" are reportedly under control.
Once there, Crockett and his ragtag crew find themselves in the middle of a clan war between two Irish patriarchs with different ideas about how to stave off the zombie apocalypse. Patrick O'Flynn (Kenneth Welsh) insists on plugging every dead and infected person with a headshot to ensure they don't join the ranks of the undead. His Bible-thumping counterpart Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) believes in the possibility of redemption, so he experiments with keeping the undead in chains, waiting for a cure while trying to wean them off their flesh-gnawing tendencies.
There's a lesson to be learned from this Hatfield-McCoy feud, something about the failures of humans to unite in a common cause, even when it's against a grave threat to the species. But while you're scratching your chin over that insight, Romero busies himself with mild wisecracks, overheated (and terribly acted) family melodramas, and ever more inventive ways to rupture the soft melon of a zombie's skull. In the past, the director has usually had an irreverent response on the issues of the day; Survival of the Dead is the first time in the series where he hasn't seemed to bother looking for one.