George Romero’s latest zombie film, Survival of the Dead (2009), is cogent and powerful, and fully worthy of Romero’s life work. It’s a sequel to Diary of the Dead (2007), and it bears something of the same relation to its predecessor that the much-underrated Day of the Dead (1985) bore to its predecessors (Night, from 1968, and Dawn, from 1978) in Romero’s first zombie series. Stylistically, Survival makes no concessions to the 21st century: it is defiantly old school in its editing, in its characterizations, and even in the (relative) crudity of its special effects. It is exactly the same sort of film that Romero was making thirty years ago; and I loved every minute of it.
What makes Survival of the Dead seem relevant and contemporary, rather than merely retro, is (surprisingly, perhaps) the way it conveys a sense of exhaustion. The filmmaking doesn’t seem to me to be in the least exhausted, but the content of the film is a very pronounced sense of exhaustion and entropy. Where Diary of the Dead was a highly remediated film, commenting on 21st century networked media, Survival suggests that the communications media themselves are over and done with. In the first few minutes, we see a laptop and (woo!) an iPhone, but these disappear, or are forgotten, as the movie proceeds. Indeed, in those first few minutes, the soldiers-gone-rogue whose Sergeant leader (Alan Van Sprang) narrates the film capture and (apparently) eliminate the Net-connected filmmakers who struggled to bear witness throughout Diary. A teenage geek boy (Devon Bostick), the owner of the aforementioned iPhone, who has more or less joined the band of rogue soldiers, finds himself reduced to last-century analog technologies (like a vinyl record player). So much for mediation and remediation; the WiFi networks have finally broken down, and we are now stuck in an interminable endgame that is no longer being televised, an ending (of the world) that itself refuses to end.
After a few misadventures, the soldiers reach an island off the Delaware coast, and therefore sheltered from the massive “unknown unknowns” of life on the mainland. Instead, they stumble into a crazy war between two patriarchs, the leaders of opposing (Irish? judging from the names and accents) families. The patriarchs have been enemies ever since childhood, we are told. They have come to blows now because one of them — Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Walsh) — wants to exterminate the zombies, even if they were once family members; while the other one — Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) — wants to keep them around (suitably chained and restrained) in the hopes of ultimately finding a cure, or at least training them to eat animal instead of human flesh.
Despite (or because of) these disagreements, the patriarchs are really mirror images of one another. They are both egomaniacal despots, bitter, stubborn, and self-willed, lording it over their families, followers, and flunkies. They have both responded to the collapse of our high-tech, globalized society by reinventing an archaic social order, one that owes more to the movies than it does to the actual everyday life of pre-zombie, pre-catastrophic modern society. O’Flynn gets a bit too much pleasure out of his fights with his identical twin daughters, one of whom lives (and is sensible where he is crazy), while the other has become a zombie (both played by Kathleen Munroe); while Muldoon has chained up his zombified wife in the kitchen, where she continues to perform a simulation of the duties that she had when alive. The oppressed women of both clans contrast with the one woman in the soldier group, referred to only as “Tomboy” (Athena Karkanis), who has the same toughness, intelligence, and clear-headedness that we’ve seen in previous Romero heroines.
A recent review of the movie’s DVD and BluRay release complains that “the O’Flynns and the Muldoons are barely convincing as modern families because they dress and act in a way that feels like an awkward mix of Lorna Doone and old-school Western.” But this archaism is not a flaw in the movie; rather, it is precisely Romero’s point. He’s taking aim, precisely, at the survivalism that is a prominent strain in contemporary American ideology and culture. Think of the Tea Party today, or of Ron Paul’s Presidential run a couple of years ago. Behind the current frothing at the mouth over the alleged “socialism” of Obama’s exceedingly cautious and right-of-center reforms, there’s a hatred of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism, and the fantasy of an earlier, white-settler America. We live in an age of “capitalist realism,” where the only alternative to neoliberal capitalism that we can imagine is outright catastrophe. But the nativist, survivalist strain in American culture actually welcomes the prospect of such catastrophe, because it fantasizes the post-catastrophic landscape as one in which “individualism” and “self-reliance” could actually flourish
Survival of the Dead actually gives us this post-catastrophic landscape. In the real world we live in, today, neoliberalism’s scorched-earth policies are in process of exterminating all forms of sociality, association,meaningfulness, and hope, leaving us only with a “marketplace” of private families and individuals locked in eternal Malthusian competition in order to survive and to consume. It isn’t too difficult to foresee the prospect that, sooner or later, these policies will end by destroying the neoliberal order itself, leaving us with nothing at all. Such is Romero’s world of the (un)dead: everything has collapsed, only we don’t realize it yet, so we continue on in our zombified state, crying out with desires for destruction and consumption that will never be satisfied, no matter how many of the still-living we consume. From the point of view of, say, Goldman Sachs, such a collapse would be the “unintended consequence” (oops!) of policies that they engaged in with no other motive than to enrich themselves. But from the point of view of the Tea Partiers and Ron Paul-style Libertarians, such a consummation is devoutly to be wished. Social implosion clears the ground for the survivalists to live their dreams.
Survival of the Dead takes a close look at the Real behind this American fantasy: it’s monomaniacal, paranoid, autocratic, misogynistic, and utterly self-deluded in its belief that it is possible to be independent of the burdens and obligations of otherness. What the survivalists fail to understand is that they themselves are already zombies while they are still alive; because their own form of life is itself a dead archaism, which continues only because they are unable to recognize that it is, already, long dead. This is the source of the sense of exhaustion that I mentioned earlier.
Romero’s zombie films have always been more about what the stress of catastrophe and danger reveals about the living, would-be survivors, than they have been about the state of being of the zombies themselves. This tendency is pushed to an extreme in Survival. For in this movie, the zombies themselves are scarcely even a menace. Anybody with a gun and ammunition (and there seems to be no scarcity of these) is well protected, and has little or nothing to worry about. The menace comes from the living, not from the dead. Most of the people who get killed in the course of the movie are murdered by other living human beings; even the genre-requisite zombie swarm, unleashing an orgy of destruction at the end, is only the result of living-human stupidity and pointless rivalry.
Survival of the Dead has many small pleasures, and moments of affective ambivalence and intensity, that are reminiscent of Romero’s earlier zombie movies. I am thinking of the moments of hesitation, of suspension between living and dying and coming back from the dead; and the tension involved in killing oneself, or somebody else one cares for, in order to avert such a return. There’s the insuppressible longing that the undead might retain something of what they were before, and the disappointment (and often, mortal danger) when it becomes clear that, inevitably, they do not. (I am thinking, especially, of the moment when O’Flynn’s daughter is bitten by her undead identical twin, as well as of the moment when Tomboy kills the other soldier with whom she has been bantering throughout, in order to spare him zombification). What’s new in Survival is only the context in which these events occur. There is no longer anything like the well-stocked shopping malls or Dawn, or the military bunker of Day, or even the yuppie enclave of Land of the Dead; and, as I’ve already noted, the network that seemed to have survived its human users in Diary has also, for the most part, gone down.
In retrospective comparison, Romero’s earlier zombie films had a perverse hopefulness, noticeable only in contrast to its absence here. We are left with a group of three survivors: the Sergeant, the tough woman soldier, and the teenaged nerd. They themselves concede that the prospects for any sort of affective bond or positive sociality, even among the three of them, is pretty slim. This may be contrasted to the island paradise to which the survivors escape at the end of Day of the Dead (a utopian moment, even though a heavily ironized and thoroughly precarious one), or even to the filmmakers-in-a-van collective at the end of Diary. The film ends, not with the escape of the three, but with a final long shot in which the two patriarchs, who have not exhausted their idiotic rivalry even by killing one another, shamble as zombies to yet another shootout; they ineffectually fire their empty pistols at one another, against the backdrop of an outrageously enormous (rising or setting?) moon.