No Concessions: Surviving, Selling, and Feeding the “Dead”

“Someone explain to me why everyone believes in an impending zombie apocalypse,” requested George A. Romero of the crowd gathered to meet him at a recent sold-out screening of his latest film, Survival of the Dead, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. That’s sort of like Paris Hilton asking who’s responsible for the proliferation of celebrity sex tapes. You didn’t mean for it to happen; the original Night of the Living Dead (1968) was intended as a one-off, and in it you don’t hear anyone refer to the shuffling undead as “zombies,” which you associated with bewhiskered Bela Lugosi flicks. By 1979’s Dawn of the Dead, though, word was out, and after the flesh-chomping, helicopter-decapitating success of the sequel theaters worldwide were filled with them. If we believe in the impending zombie apocalypse, George—and, hey, with ash in the air, oil in the water, economies in the toilet, and sociopolitical tension at the breaking point everywhere, who’s to say it won’t happen?—it’s because you sparked our belief in it.

Others fanned the flames, as the zombie film spread and mutated, a cinematic contagion thoroughly documented by noted horror film scribe Richard Harland Smith in Cineaste magazine. Romero completed his masterful trilogy in 1985, with the underrated Day of the Dead, then largely left the torch for others to carry, save for writing/producing credits on 1990’s surprisingly satisfying Living Dead remake. Almost in response to the running zombies and other violations of undead canon incurred by 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake (“fine for the first 10-15 minutes, afterwards…” he shrugged, for the BAM crowd), he returned to the arena with 2005’s Land of the Dead, a more expensive, studio-produced continuation that flops around like a reanimated corpse with a machete in its forehead.

There it might have lain. Intrigued, however, by the media revolution, Romero rebooted the dead with the video-crafted Diary of the Dead (2007), which, like fellow 60’s survivor Brian De Palma’s Iraq essay Redacted, uses the Internet and other readily available tools of the trade to depict a new zombie uprising. Survival picks up from there, as its renegade National Guardsmen characters, led by “Nicotine” Crockett (Alan van Sprang, who played a different grunt in Land), get caught up in a Hatfield-vs.-McCoys conflict on an island off the coast of Delaware. The wily O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh), who was sent packing from the place for his scorched earth approach to zombie fighting, resumes his campaign after he hitches a ferry ride with the soldiers. The Muldoon clan, which keeps its undead family members alive and tries to domesticate them with horsemeat, determines to stop him once and for all, as a war-within-the-war against the zombies erupts.

At BAM Romero reiterated that his primary interest in this cycle is human foible, and our inability to see the common good through our unenlightened self-interest and fallback to expedient solutions and brute force. As the first sequence of Dead films played out the zombie threat receded; mostly dangerous only in roving packs, the flesh-eaters were easily killed off in outrageous, blackly comic ways, like ants at a picnic. We were the problem, and the new film continues to question our war-like ways, in miniature, as the two families continue their lengthy blood feud through the zombie-geddon. The last shot of Survival, which makes effective use of Adam Swica’s “dead-on” widescreen framing, crystallizes this worldview.

One encapsulating image, however, does not a movie make. There’s a flippant, EC Comics side to Romero’s approach (exemplified by Creepshow), and it tends to get the better of him here. The BAM audience laughed in most of the right places (the fire extinguisher zombie kill has the right over-the-top quality)—and in a few of the wrong ones, too. There’s a silly plot device involving twinning, and Romero’s hard-boiled dialogue, delivered through clenched jaws, hasn’t changed with the times. Except for Canadian journeyman Welsh, who is no stranger to the genre (he was Twin Peaks’ Windom Earle and the Cheney-esque VP in The Day After Tomorrow), the actors never quite find a style, or give us much reason to mourn their imminent passing. Survival of the Dead isn’t sloppy, but, like Diary, it’s not gripping, either. Despite the production gaps there’s an urgency to the first trilogy that’s absent here. The 70-year-old Romero says he’s planning two more Dead films, and I don’t begrudge one of our most influential independent filmmakers for overplanting his crop. But outside of one sequence involving underwater zombies he’s made the same mistake as his protagonists—he doesn’t fear the dead.

Death has dominion over my DVD changer, which is infested with zombies. Three horror comedies have come my way, and I’m dying to tell you about them, ha-ha.

Last fall’s Zombieland, on DVD and Blu-ray, is the most successful zombie movie ever made. Except it’s not about zombies. Rather it belongs to the popular subgenre of “infected” films, represented by 28 Days Later (2002) and Romero’s own The Crazies (1973), whose recent remake he’s not, umm, crazy about, either. This gives the filmmakers the excuse to put the “dead” in motion, and, in this case, stage a bunch of slapstick gags, as a bickering quartet (phobic, rules-obeying Jesse Eisenberg, straight from Adventureland, Twinkie-obsessive cowboy Woody Harrelson, and sisters Emma Stone and Little Miss Sunshine herself, Abigail Breslin) head west for a supposedly safe L.A. amusement park.

The test of any zombie (or “zombie”) movie is how well it works when there are no biters around, and Zombieland, a National Lampoon’s Vacation twist on the subject, mostly scores. The script, by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, has a lot of riffing room, and Eisenberg and Harrelson are quite good at making something out of not much. This road movie hits high gear with the appearance of a Special Guest Star in Hollywood…then downshifts for the big finish at the park. First-time feature director Ruben Fleischer admits on the backslapping commentary track with the two actors and the writers that the hectic climax got away from him, and the movie peters out. Like everything else about Zombieland, though, it’s no big deal, and while the movie lacks the penetrating social satire of Shaun of the Dead (the very best comic take on the genre) I like how the theme of trust between the foursome is developed, and the movie is fun in its pop graveyard fashion. Penalty, however, for “Wichita” (Stone) ID’ing Anaconda as her first R-rated movie as her defenses drop; a quick check of the IMDb would have confirmed its PG-13.

Besides the commentary (the film was originally intended to be a TV show, not that I can see any network biting) the disc offers making-of’s and minor deleted scenes. The best “extra” is one you may have missed if you left the theater before the credits concluded, which you should never do. Go to the end of the movie and enjoy a final scene between Harrelson and the Special Guest Star.

Norway’s not known for bringing the funny, and I didn’t crack a smile during Dead Snow, a very consciously manufactured “cult hit” now on DVD and Blu-ray. In an Evil Dead-type storyline a group of boozy, sexed-up med students on an Alpine ski holiday have more than their vacation ruined when undead Nazis show up, to the strands of the “Peer Gynt Suite” (these are the jokes, kids). The movie makes a big deal out of this would-be shocking concept, as if there haven’t been Nazi zombies since at least The Frozen Dead in 1967 (check out 1975’s Shock Waves for a creepy one). What Dead Snow lacks in originality, director Tommy Wirkola determines to make up for in outrageousness—the stomach-dropping special effects, accent on intestines, were a case of TMI for me. He does stage a scene I always wanted to see, where a victim takes a bite out of a zombie, and there is some decent cliffhanging stuntwork. There’s a twist at the end, too—yet this is one concept I’d put on ice.

In a world where cinematic classics like Greed and The Magnificent Ambersons go unreleased on DVD we have a two-disc special edition of Dead Snow. Making-of’s, effects documentaries, outtakes, trailers; so what if I found the movie more yellow than dead, let it Snow. Even with subtitles, though, zombie clichés are still zombie clichés.

Horror buffs will appreciate I Sell the Dead, on DVD and Blu-ray. When director Glenn McQuaid mentions Freddie Francis’ Paranoiac (1963) as a stylistic influence in his nuts-and-bolts commentary you know you’re not just skimming the surface, as the movie, centered on grave robbers in 19th century England (Dominic Monaghan and Larry Fessenden) who traffic in the undead, cheerfully ropes in vampires, extraterrestrials, and of course zombies. The humor is broad, the references wide-ranging (Roger Corman’s Poe films, Hammer horror, Re-animator), and the special guest stars—Ron Perlman (Hellboy) as a priest and Angus Scrimm (The Tall Man in the Phantasm films)—blue-chip.

New York-based Fessenden is a genre Renaissance man, producing, writing, directing, and/or starring in any number of horror movies, including Habit, Wendigo, and The Last Winter. Derived from a short, this is the lightest of his films of his that I’ve seen, and he and Lost refugee Monaghan, sporting accents they can only place as “Dickensian” in their commentary track, are a fine knockabout pair.

I Sell the Dead is currently running on The Movie Channel. If you have it I suggest sampling it there, and if you’re sold, buying it. Besides the tracks, a good anamorphic widescreen transfer, and a thorough making-of that goes into the shoot on a cleverly disguised Staten Island and Long Island, it comes packaged with a delightful comic book version that captures the spirit of the production in pen and ink. That’s showmanship to wake the dead.

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