Survival of the Dead and how to keep a series interesting

Some background on me and George Romero’s zombies:

I saw Night of the Living Dead one Saturday afternoon when I was in high school. The Memphis TV station, apparently thinking it was some innocuous old B&W horror movie, did not edit it. Forget the graphic intestine-eating: I’d never before seen a movie where the hero died such a pointless death. Later, when I got to college, I discovered there was a small community of people who’d watched that exact same broadcast and been similarly marked by it.

I saw Dawn of the Dead at the Cabana Theater in Jackson, TN. When the famous shotgun-to-the-head effect came up, a woman in a nurse’s uniform got up and proclaimed to her date, “I see this shit in the ER all day, I ain’t paying to see it now!” She stomped out. Her date stayed.

I saw Day of the Dead on videotape, alone in my college apartment. When the heroes were herded into the zombie enclosure, I had to stand up and pace around my chair for the remainder of the film. That’s one way I handle suspense when I’m alone.

I saw Land of the Dead at a packed preview showing in Madison, WI. Cheers greeted Tom Savini’s momentary cameo. Bigger cheers greeted the zombie biting out a girl’s navel ring.

I saw Diary of the Dead at the late Westgate Art Cinema in Madison, with six other patrons (which explains why it’s “late,” I suppose). I stayed all the way through the credits to see if there was a stinger. There wasn’t.

And now, Survival of the Dead, on blu ray in my living room, once again all alone.

You can find synopses of the film online, so I won’t bore you with one here. What I will say is that Romero once again subverts expectations by giving us a zombie movie that’s almost a western, with wide-screen photography, galloping horses and lots of gunplay. It’s also the first true sequel in his series, featuring a character introduced in Diary of the Dead. At the same time you get the expected tropes: an isolated setting (in this case an island), survivors enmeshed in petty squabbles while missing the big picture, plenty of gore (most of it CG enhanced to the point of [deliberate] ridiculousness), and zombies doing things they’ve never done before.

Is this as good as Dawn of the Dead? No. You don’t hit that sort of pinnacle more than once. John Ford made a lot of westerns, many of them great, but he only made one The Searchers. At the same time, it’s impressive how Romero, working in such a narrowly defined form, continues to find new ways to present his zombies. A lot of web critics dismiss his newer films as lacking the chops of his earlier work, but that’s missing the point.

After you revolutionize the genre with your first two horror films, it’s impossible to keep repeating the trick. The fact that Romero doesn’t simply rehash the same old thing is both admirable and exciting. As a novelist who writes a series, I see this as an example of how to do it right: name another series where the individual films are so hugely different from each other,and yet (to me at least) still give the people what they want.

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