Zombie Master Romero Revisits Generic Tropes


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In 1968, George Romero invented the zombie movie. Previous films had portrayed zombies as products of Caribbean voodoo; they were eerie, but not likely to tear off chunks of your flesh. "Night of the Living Dead" changed the living dead forever and inspired legions of dedicated fans, many of whom attended the screening of his newest film, "Survival of the Dead," at the Metreon in San Francisco last week.

Mr. Romero himself was to be in attendance, and it seemed that most of the audience was more excited about the prospect of asking him questions after the film than the movie itself.

Rightly so. "Survival of the Dead" doesn't compare with Romero's earlier zombie masterpieces, but that's obviously expecting too much. The story follows a quartet of National Guard members in the wake of the zombie resurrection. Searching for safety, they find themselves on an island off the coast of Delaware, in the midst of not only zombies but a pair of warring native families.

Romero frames the zombie outbreak within the confines of a small island and some very narrow-minded people. The Muldoons and O'Flynns (the patriarchs are played by Richard Fitzpatrick and Kenneth Welsh) are like the Hatfields and McCoys of Plum Island, neighbors who've held nothing but hostility for each other for generations. Instead of banding together to fight off zombies, the existence of zombies, and the question of what to do with them, has only further cemented their mutual enmity.

In most zombie movies, the protagonists are a group of relative strangers who must unite in order to survive. From "Night of the Living Dead" to "Shaun of the Dead," those who live are those best able to set aside their personal hang-ups and work together, creating a sort of parable about cooperation. Being handy with a cricket bat doesn't hurt either.

The crazy thing about "Survival of the Dad" is that surviving zombies looks sort of tame compared with the intensity of the O'Flynn-Muldoon rivalry. Romero casts them as gunslingers worthy of the Old West, complete with cowboy hats and pistols, a very cool and pretty creative aesthetic choice.

The problem with "Survival of the Dead" is its supposition that some heavy moral question exists concerning zombies. I would disagree. There's no way you would keep a barn full of insatiable zombies around just because they resemble people you used to know. Old Man Muldoon asserts the importance of "keeping the dead with us" as though it's a line from scripture, but it just doesn't make sense.

Another perplexing thing about "Survival" is, since the families have purportedly been living off the shore of Delaware for a few generations, why do they all retain strong Irish accents? It's one of those little anomalies you just can't convince yourself not to notice. Same goes for the silliness of the token Hispanic character, whose name, "Cisco"-apparently short for Francisco-is way too reminiscent of the erstwhile pop star than seems necessary. Plus, he doesn't sound at all Hispanic, not until uttering "Dios Mio" moments before his death. I guess realism is too much to expect from a film in which a character sticks the nozzle of a fire extinguisher into the mouth of a living corpse, then squeezes the trigger until flame retardant foam bursts out of his ears and his brain explodes.

Though "Survival of the Dead" proves he's no longer at his best, George Romero is still great at making these kinds of scenes--in which he kills off his characters and especially their zombie foes in manners so ridiculous you want to laugh and puke at the same time.

His flippant demeanor at the Q & A session after the screening confirmed the notion that yes, these movies are not meant to be taken too seriously.

Seizing the opportunity to have their long-held questions about zombie lore answered, some of the more earnest fans asked questions like, "How do zombies tell humans from other zombies?", to which Romero responded, "I'd imagine they smell better." Asked to settle a debate between a pair of friends concerning the relative merits of fleeing to the Arctic tundra or taking off in a hot air balloon in the event of a zombie outbreak, Romero didn't express much optimism for either tactic. Nor did he claim any authority, saying "You'll have to call Max Brooks on that one," referring to the author of such books as "The Zombie Survival Guide."

It became apparent that, although Romero has dedicated his career to the zombie, he sees the whole spectacle as fun, and still seems genuinely surprised that his undead creations have had such staying power. He doesn't pretend to be an authority on the very zombie alternate universe he's created, which is perhaps why it is easy to note inconsistencies in this film. He admitted that he still has a lot of "unanswered questions," saying, "Do zombies shit? I don't know." He knows a little about talking shit though, which he did about the "fast zombies" now seen in movies like "28 Days Later," but that seemed more like a concession than an expression of genuine disdain.

It's always interesting to notice how seeing someone in person informs your view of his or her work. After witnessing his modesty and playful wit firsthand, it's hard not to take a more sympathetic view of his newest film. It's not great by any means, but it's gruesome, a bit thought-provoking, and entertaining. It seems like that's all Romero is going for.


Discuss zombie ethics with Nick at [email protected]

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