I finally got the chance to see George Romero’s new zombie movie Survival of the Dead today after sitting around for an hour last night for a screening that never happened, and it was definitely worth the wait. Despite my sleep-deprived state (as always at film festivals, I decided to forgo healthy living in favor of seeing and writing about as many movies as possible), I was thoroughly engaged in Romero’s latest exploration of the undead, and found it surprisingly enjoyable and effective. After 2005’s mediocre Land of the Dead and 2007’s terrible Diary of the Dead, I’d learned not to expect too much from Romero’s zombie revival, but Survival upends all that, and is easily Romero’s best zombie movie since 1985’s Day of the Dead.
For starters, even though it’s Romero’s first Dead movie to carry over a character from a previous installment, it doesn’t repeat the mockumentary style of Diary, except to offer a brief recap at the beginning to explain just who Army man Crocket (Alan Van Sprang) is. Instead, it’s quite nicely shot in a more traditional cinematic style, and takes place largely on an isolated island off the coast of Delaware, where two feuding patriarchs (whose families make up nearly the entire population of the island) are engaged in a grudge match over how to properly deal with the undead (with years of bad blood lurking just below that surface argument).
Crocket and his band of soldiers find themselves in the middle of the feud, and Romero wisely dials back the preachy social commentary that marred both Land and Diary, instead focusing on character development and family dynamics. In Day of the Dead, the zombies were being kept alive for scientific reasons; here the motivations are sentimental and religious, and they open up a new thematic avenue for Romero to explore. While Diary felt like the filmmaker clumsily hopping onto a hot trend, Survival has something more authentic to say, and is more about people fighting each other than it is about people fighting zombies. The messages about the stubbornness of human nature and the illogic of religion are present and discernible, but they don’t hit you over the head. If Romero can continue making zombie movies like this one, then maybe the Dead series isn’t as played out as it appeared to be.
The rather slow third day (with patrons either sleeping off Halloween hangovers or already headed home if they came from out of town) also featured a few other sparsely attended movies. I may have nodded off briefly during the lame microbudget vampire movie Live Evil, but I don’t think it much mattered. The plot was already a complete mess while I was still awake, and the only thing the movie has going for it is some amusing stuff involving vampire babies (that is, bloodsucking infants, not the offspring of vampires).
Much better was Franklyn (which kept me awake the entire time), a weird British sci-fi/domestic drama hybrid, with four parallel stories whose connections become clear over the course of the film. Three take place in modern-day London, while the fourth is set in a steampunk-ish dystopia called Meanwhile City. Those sci-fi segments borrow greatly from movies like Dark City, V for Vendetta and The Matrix, but filmmaker Gerald McMorrow has a wonderful eye, and Franklyn is a stylistic treat. It’s also well-acted by the likes of Ryan Phillippe, Eva Green and Sam Riley (it opened theatrically in the U.K., but will debut here on DVD). The problem is that all the mystery turns out to be standing in for a lot of melodrama clichés; the more you learn about what’s actually going on, the less interesting the movie becomes.
I ended the weekend tired but satisfied with the festival’s first year, and I’m pleased that Fangoria has signed a deal for two more years at the Palms. Attendance appeared to be strong at most of the events I went to; I didn’t make it to the exhibition floor on Sunday, but there were plenty of people walking around on Friday and Saturday (it was quite crowded Saturday afternoon). Most movie screenings attracted decent crowds, although Sunday was indeed slower (except for Survival of the Dead). I would have liked to see fewer movies projected from commercial DVDs, and a wider program with more emphasis on vintage material (other than the RiffTrax commentary showing of House on Haunted Hill, all the movies were new releases). And the bifurcated structure of the convention hall definitely hurt some out-of-the-way vendors.
But these are more suggestions than complaints, and in a city that has seen its biggest film festival close up shop, the arrival of this new player is more than welcome. I look forward to being sleep-deprived and hungry again next year.