It was once the case - and not too long ago, at that - that a new zombie film from George A. Romero was a seriously exciting and important event in the world of horror cinema. At their one-per-decade pace, his ...of the Dead films weren't just your typical gutmunchers, they were Events, and their rarity served, famously, to make them commentaries on the social mores of the day as much as they were effective horror pictures.

When Land of the Dead came out in 2005, it was after a 20-year gap in the series, and accordingly, expectations were high; higher, as it turned out, than the film was entirely able to fulfill, though I think most of us would agree that it's pretty good if just shy of "great". Making his first zombie film of the CGI era seems to have inspired Romero to unheard-of levels of productivity, for having taken 37 years to make just four Dead movies, he's knocked out two in the last three years: Diary of the Dead, a reboot using the oh-so-hip first-person camera aesthetic, and now Survival of the Dead, new to theaters after premiering at Venice last year, and spending a good month available on Demand.

It's unfortunately the case that the readier the filmmaker spits out sequels, the less reason he has for doing so: it hurts me not a little to say that Survival at last finds the great Romero with nothing new to say about zombies (he still at least had something to say with Diary, even if he did not say it terribly well). Of course, there's no such thing as even a perfectly dreadful zombie movie that's a waste of time, and Survival is far from perfectly dreadful: it's handsomely shot by Adam Swica, there are plenty of imaginative and fun zombie effects (my favorite involves a flare gun), and the Canadian locations standing in for an island off the coast of Delaware are breathtakingly gorgeous. But there's no soul to any of it: nothing beyond the expected boilerplate of "a group of people struggling to keep ahead of an increasingly large army of zombies". Everything interesting that Romero comes up with to say about his human protagonists or his beloved undead has come up in one of his earlier films, and always to better effect.

The basics of the plot look like this: there are two families on Plum Island in the Atlantic, both of them inexplicably Irish, and they hate each other. Six days after the outbreak of zombiedom presented in Diary, Patrick O'Flynn (Kenneth Welsh) has formed a posse to eradicate every zombie that crops up on the island, while his lifelong rival Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) tries to find a way to bring the humanity back to the undead, not able to bring himself to kill his loved ones even if they are pale-faced cannibals with milky eyes. O'Flynn ends up exiled, and eventually meets up with a team of U.S. military rascals, briefly spotted in Diary, led by Sgt. Crocket (Alan Van Sprang); they've already picked up a wiry teenage boy (Devon Bostick) with little useful skills except a gift for survival. O'Flynn manages to get them all to the island, where he half-tricks them into joining his side (Muldoon's murderous vengeance against outsiders helps seal the deal), setting the stage for a conflict between two old foes who've merely settled upon the zombie holocaust as a good way to workout their life-long feud. But soft! is it possible that the zombies might be able to learn, and with O'Flynn's beloved daughter (Kathleen Munroe) as Muldoon's latest test subject, is it possible that the two families will at last know peace in the light of common interest? Or will this just make things worse?

Worse, obviously. It's a Romero film, and that means plenty of cynicism. Though it's fairly shallow cynicism here compared to the rich rankness of e.g. Day of the Dead (which treats upon the "can we re-train them?" question in a much more fascinating way). The message of the film, like the message of a great many zombie films, is something along the lines of "even in the face of zombies, man's natural cruelty towards other man will predominate". Which has been true of every previous Romero film, as well, except that every one of them did something else, besides. Survival stops at that question, and seems very proud (especially in its gaudy closing shot) to have come up with such an original conceit.

Essentially, the director has descended into self-parody at this point, though whether it is deliberate self-parody or not is a tremendously difficult thing to say. Certainly, there are some moments that are so broad and campy that it's all but impossible to imagine a writer of even the slightest intelligence failing to notice how damn goofy he was being (I'm mostly thinking of the clodgy way in which we learn that one character has a twin). Besides, there's the overarching notion of an island of 19th Century Irishmen plopped right there in Delaware, and moreover, 19th Century Irishmen who act in pretty much every respect - down to the hats! - like frontiersmen in a Western. Romero is certainly a good enough filmmaker to intend for something like "campy zombie Western" as a grand joke at the expense of his previous, and better, five movies, but I'm not absolutely certain: if it's a comedy, then all of the humor falls short, not least because Romero has always been fairly serious, and his very sincerely horrific direction of all the material tends to ignore the possibility that any of it is supposed to be funny.

Excepting for that slim possibility that it's a spoof of some unusual kind (and a failed one, at that), there's nothing about Survival that is in any way whatsoever an exceptionally well-made, inventive, scary, or smart zombie movie. And like I said, there's no such thing as a bad zombie movie. There is however, such a thing as a needless, routine zombie movie, and that, sadly, is exactly how I feel about Survival of the Dead: proof of the unthinkable fact that George A. Romero really needs to give up on the genre that he effectively created entirely by himself.

5/10