Purely by chance, we watched George Romero’s SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, Breck Eisner’s THE CRAZIES, and Ruben Fleischer’s ZOMBIELAND in a month. Not all in an evening or anything hardcore like that, mind you. Then, more recently, we watched the whole of Frank Darabont’s The Walking Dead in a day. That was somewhat hardcore, I grant you.

The Romero is the most underrated of the three — we’ve come to a pretty pass when the master and originator of the zombie sub-genre is so marginalized! And yet this is a fun film, essentially a western with a lot of Irish actors and a lot of zombies. Acting honours in the no-star cast go to Kenneth Welsh as the roguish patriarch. A few awkward moments obtrude, and the CGI gore effects look cheap. Romero is in very relaxed form, like late Hawks, not trying to be earthshaking, just having fun. The movie really is a western, something like THE BIG COUNTRY, complete with a zombie on horseback. Romero still pulls amusing variations on his original 1968 premise, and here he delivers the finest closing shot of his entire career. Long may he reign!

THE CRAZIES isn’t absolutely strictly a zombie movie, in the same way that 28 DAYS LATER isn’t, but… you know it is, right? A remake of Romero’s 1973 shocker, it’s much more expensive, much slicker, and delivers copious shocks and considerable suspense. The performances are fine, with Brit-playing-yank Joe Anderson the man of the match. It provides the most spectacular version yet of a climax that served for both RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD and PONTYPOOL, and probably needs to be retired. As Fiona said, it’s stylishly made and has lots of good scares, but lacks the skin-crawling creepiness of the seventies cult nasty.

Scott Kosar and Ray Wright’s script does serve up some nice war-on-terror resonance, in keeping with the political tradition Romero’s always been part of (unlike the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake, which doesn’t bother its pretty decomposing head about little things like meaning), and in the early stages I was impressed by the pace of the plot development and the intelligence of the characters, who figure out the whole situation and take sensible steps to contain the problem long before most real cops would, let alone the movie variety. It doesn’t do them any good. And unfortunately, as the crisis mounts, they seem to lose their wits and do stupid things like separating for no reason in locations which haven’t been secured.

What they need is a set of rules, like Jesse Eisenberg in ZOMBIELAND. You wouldn’t think there was room for another zom-rom-com after SHAUN OF THE DEAD, but Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick use the zombie holocaust as mere bloodsoaked backdrop to a touching love story between a naive, nerdish virgin and a tough lady grifter. There’s actually a slight flavour of 1930s conman movies like BLONDE CRAZY here.

The cinematographer’s name is Michael Bondvillain, how cool is that? Oh, wait…

Also to be enjoyed — the titles, which use that interactive lettering thing that’s been spreading through cinema since the opening creds of PANIC ROOM, titles floating blimplike over Manhattan and casting their drifting shadows over the skyscrapers. Here, the artists’ names are scattered by falling zombies and their prey. This is a stylistic flourish driven by technology — had it been possible in the forties, Michael Powell would have had fun with the idea. In the sixties, Leone.

This is the first movie to explore the idea of zombie celebrities — expect more of this, someday. Romero introduced the incidental comedy of dead people still wearing the ridiculous gear they had on in life, back in DAWN OF THE DEAD — football players, Hari Krishna cultists, nuns (in fact, the nude girl in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is probably the first gesture in this direction), and ZOMBIELAND carries on the tradition with a zombie stripper, nipple-tassles spinning like rotor blades as she sprints bloodily after a victim, and a zombie father-and-son three-legged race could well be the greatest genre image of 2009.

Finally, The Walking Dead, Frank Darabont’s TV treatment of zombies, which delivers on suspense and gore and is compulsively watchable, as we discovered after five or so hours of viewing it. What it lacks is any new slant on the zombocalypse scenario, and any particularly novel or striking characters. The central perfs are all very good (as in THE CRAZIES, several Brits play Yanks), but nobody has the kind of soap-opera appeal of Hurley from Lost or Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica: they’re all a bit standard-issue. And if they’re not going to be decorated with quirks, I’d like them to be properly deep, which they’re not either. Only Michael Rooker (known affectionately to us as “Henry Portrait”, which is an old League of Gentlemen joke) has an excess of unpleasant personality to balance the mindless hordes.

Good zombies, though! Probably the most impressive designs of all the shambling undead above, and very good suspense situations, deftly delivered by Darabont and his colleagues, including Ernest Dickerson. My favourite TV zombie holocaust is still this one, though.

Available for cheap in UK:

Dead Set [DVD] [2008]

Zombieland [DVD] [2009]

Zombieland [Blu-ray] [2009]

The Crazies [Blu-ray] [2010]

The Crazies [DVD] [2010]

Survival Of The Dead [DVD] [2009]

Survival Of The Dead [Blu-ray] [2009]


George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead (Two-Disc Ultimate Undead Edition)

The Crazies [Blu-ray]

The Crazies


Zombieland [Blu-ray]

The Walking Dead: Season One

The Walking Dead: Season One [Blu-ray]

49 Responses to “Zombiethon”

  1. You’ve put me in a mind to do a zombiethon myself now. I thought the opening credits to Zombieland were possibly the best of that year.

  2. Afrer Dawn of the Dead (the original, not the remake) I lost interest in zombie movies. Romero is scarcely without talent, but it shouldn’t be forgoten that he fell into the zombie movie business quite by accident. When he started out he wanted to make realsitic dramas about everyday life on the order of early Paddy Chaevsky. He made Night of the Living Dead in order to — he hoped — make a few pennies and establish cred. A few years after he was able to shoo the film he REALLY wanted to make, There’s Always Vanilla. It vanished from view in a manner of nanoseconds and hasn’t been seen since its Pittsburgh premiere. I don’t think it ever made it out of town and it never shows up on cable.

    Zombieland stars the utterly enchanting Jesse Eisenberg who got to play a REAL zombie in the lavshly awarded The Social Contract Indeed the Fincher/Sorkin jurrgernaut is such a sure thing for Oscar glory that detractors have started tosping up like weed. The fact of the matter is it’s a teriffic film.

    There was a spashy party at Spago for it the other week with all principles in attendance. Jesse is so small I felt like the world’s biggest perv just talking to him. He’s very smart, and says Marty has been calling him. They’re the same height and he talks just as fast so it should be Heaven.

  3. Arthur S. Says:

    I liked him best of all actors in THE SOCIAL NETWORK(which for me, is a terrific film, but not the Great Movie on the Internet Age as promised).

    I haven’t seen much of Romero’s films but the one I liked best is MARTIN, about a supposed vampire. It’s a genre movie but it gives you a look at post-industrial landscapes like no American movie in the 70s except for the beginning of WANDA. Very interesting film especially with its firm insistence, “There’s no real magic anywhere!”

  4. Is Ruben Fleischer by any chance related to the late great Richard Fleischer? That in itself would make me curious to see his film.

    As for THE SOCIAL NETWORK…I’ve never felt the faintest urge to join Facebook but always felt vaguely apologetic about it. Now, having seen how utterly loathsome and despicable its creators are, I no longer do.

  5. Heard good things about The Walking Dead from those in my circle who have seen it. I hate what AMC has become as a cable movie channel, but I must admit that after having watched three seasons recently Mad Men has me impressed. My favorite line from Zombieland come from Bill Murray: “Any regrets?” “Maybe Garfield”. Which brings to mind Dan Akroyd as the voice of Yogi Bear. The mind reels.

  6. Arthur S. Says:

    Those kids in SOCIAL NETWORK the movie aren’t so bad. They’re nerds who aren’t in the least bit interested in begging for sympathy or special pleading and as such an improvement. As for Facebook, I didn’t like cell phones, didn’t stop me from buying one and using it(and still hating it) and Facebook is better than cellphones.

  7. Arthur you don’t remember high school. Those kids are BAD.

  8. Arthur S. Says:

    Well I was being adult and withholding judgment but yeah those kids are bad.

  9. NEVER withhold judgment. People say to me “You’re so judgmental!’ My response? SOMEBODY has to be!

  10. There’s Always Vanilla was released on DVD paired with Romero’s Season of the Witch quite a few years back.

  11. Arthur S. Says:

    What do you think of Romero’s MARTIN, David E?

  12. It’s very good. As a postmodern vampire movie it’s not up to the level of Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction, but it’s in the ballpark.

  13. Tony Williams Says:

    Thank you David C. for your astute introduction and David E. for your earlier comment. If Graham Greene dismissed being labeled as a Catholic writer by saying “I’m a writer who happens to be Catholic”, then Romero is also a multi-layered type of director who happens to make zombie films,. Like yourself, I also think VANILLA is underrated, despite the fact that George dismisses it. In fact, as you also know, the early Romero interviews from 1969 onwards reveal that George was interested in making other types of films than zombie movies and a forthcoming collection from the University of Mississippi Press scheduled for August 2011 should make this clear.

  14. david wingrove Says:

    The kids in THE SOCIAL NETWORK are beyond bad…they remind me of everybody I spent my four years at university avoiding.

  15. Still haven’t seen Vanilla OR Jack’s Wife. Martin is really the big event for me where Romero managed to make a terrific film that wasn’t about zombies. What’s great is that the zombie metaphor is so flexible, what’s less great is that it’s often used as a genre convention without the filmmakers feeling the need to say anything with it, as in the stylish vacuum of the Dawn of the Dead remake.

    Eisenberg sounds delightful! Hope he goes from strength to strength. His quirky appearance should stop him devolving into boring lead roles: I hope Andrew Garfield gets to stay interesting too.

  16. Jesse first sparked my interest in The Squid and the Whale

  17. Just like the mall gives social/eco context to the zombies in Dawn, the post industrial decay( like Arthur mentions) gives it to the vampirism in Martin. The overall “naturalistic” feel of Martin is one of the things that makes it an interesting flick; its on youtube, albeit flipped right to left.

  18. I remember Romero talking about finding the abandoned church in Martin, and realising it fit in with the theme of the decline of religion. The film really seems to evolve from those spaces.

  19. Dawn comes just a year after Martin, 78 and 77 respectively. Taken together, they capture this historical “cusp” period in the states; between Ford/ Carter and anticipating Reaganism by a couple of years.

  20. …and he kind of doesn’t come back to contemporary reality and relevance until Land of the Dead, his underrated Hawksian take on the neo-cons.

  21. Crikey–someone with something good to say about ‘Survival of the Dead’! My “favourite” bit is the part where the goodies are standing on a road, and hear the baddies coming, and they hide. Once the baddies go past, the goodies reappear in such a way as to reveal they were just crouching down out of the camera’s (but not the baddies’) sight. The whole film had this sort of half-arsedness about it.

  22. There have been a surprisingly good number of zombie films recently. Zombieland is probably my favourite but Land Of The Dead has grown on me with repeated viewings even if it’s not quite up there with Night, Dawn and Day.

    I’m particularly fond of the zombie videogames such as the Left 4 Dead series. Seeing these rules of a zombie film play out from inside the narrative is quite an interesting way to view the events.

    I loved Dead Set for its pitch perfect satire of the Big Brother UK phenomenon (including priceless cameos from almost a decade at that point of contestants), giving presenter of the show Davina McCall a great role and for being one of the few zombie shows in this new wave to actually capture that Romero feel of claustrophobia, horrible characters you can’t wait to see ripped apart and the end being caused by the living characters making terrible, over-emotional judgements.

    If I have a criticism of the programme it would perhaps be the way that the boyfriend’s travels across the country to the Big Brother House, while containing some interesting subplots, kind of peters out, reduces the claustrophobic dimension and could be removed entirely from the show without causing much of an impact.

  23. I thought Pontypool was really good too, all the more effective for being based almost entirely in one open plan set. The director Bruce McDonald made some excellent films in the early 90s. Roadkill and Highway 61 are excellent black comedy road trip films, pre-empting (and much better than) films like Kalifornia or Natural Born Killers. And Dance Me Outside is an excellent Native American reservation set drama. After years in television he did Pontypool and went on to The Tracey Fragments with Ellen Page.

  24. I loved Pontypool and interviewed MacDonald at Edinburgh. And The Tracey Fragments is rather fine also.

    Survival of the Dead IS, sadly, a film one has to make excuses for, or at least be prepared to overlook some serious problems. If you can do that, it has some merits, same with Diary.

    Dead Set might have made a great feature film with the kind of trims you suggest, Colin. But I guess TV is the natural home for a show about TV.

  25. As Jesus Christ was a zombie all retellings of his story count with the except of The Last Temptation of Christ which doesn’t involve the “ressurection.”

  26. I guess George Romero is just a director, who just happens to be Catholic… or at least that’s what Graham Greene would say.

  27. Tony Williams Says:

    George rejected all that – decades ago.

  28. I was being perverse….

  29. But isn’t he an archbishop?

    Mel Gibson’s torture-porn Christ has the most hilarious zombie ending: “He’s back…and he’s mad!” Caviezel’s scary scowl actually comes as light relief after two hours of eroticised brutality, as it clearly states “When Mel reads the Bible, he doesn’t actually understand ANYTHING.”

  30. The only thing that really died in that movie was poor Jim Caviezel’s career! Maybe he was just too beautiful to last…

  31. He was discovered, BTW, by Gus. He plays a hotel clerk in My Own Private Idaho. Malick used him to great effect in The Thin Red Line (particularly in the sequence keyed to the Faure Requiem)

    But then Monster Mel got his mitts on him.

  32. I guess a nasty arm of organized religion already had him, but he was at least doing great work. Now he’s The Prisoner, quite literally.

  33. Jim Caviezel discovered by Gus van Sant?! And I thought he was a clean-living Catholic boy…is there a ‘hidden history’ there somewhere? Not that you could ever tell us without getting sued.

  34. A minor correction: I think that Survival of the Dead has mostly Canadians-playing-Irish (or Oirish), just as The Crazies/The Walking Dead are infiltrated with Brits-playing-Yanks. No actual Irish actors in sight, I think.

  35. I think that’s correct. Sorry if I implied otherwise.

  36. You could write a book about Gus and his posse.

    Here’s one of them.

    I’ve known Gus since the 80’s and it’s quite a feat keeping track of all the boyfriends, ex-boyfriends and boyfriends of ex-boyfriends.

  37. Here’s Gus’ episode from Paris je t’aime

    The blonde cutie in the smock is Elias McConnell. He played the photographer in Elephant. No surprise that Gaspard Ulleil falls for him.

  38. Just back tracking a bit… in addition to the church in Martin, Romero wrings talismanic dread out of every ordinary object, especially when he gets to his “cousin’s” house.

  39. Tony Williams Says:

    Romero played the role of the priest in that film to get back at his Catholic upbringing.

    Also, so sad about Caviezel’s career. The PRISONER remake could not have helped from what I’ve read about it.

  40. I’m pretty sure it didn’t.

    Re Catholicism: “That is one creepy religion,” said Brian DePalma. No offense to the many perfectly nice Catholics. Ratzinger’s U-turn on contraception is a welcome development. Maybe one day the Church will apologise to the AIDS victims the way it eventually did to Galileo.

  41. Tony Williams Says:

    Maybe, the former Pope’s rottweiler is trying to distract attention from canonizing The Fuhrer’s Pope?

  42. Well, it’s a good trade-off: a decision that could save lives, versus an act of gross folly, canonizing an appeaser, which doesn’t really have any real-world consequences.

  43. OK, I watched the Crazies remake last night, and was amazed at how good it was! People acting intelligently, as you say (and when they started getting a bit sillier towards the end, multiple head trauma could be a valid excuse), genuinely creepy rather than OTT disgusting, and played completely straight with no knowing winks at the camera. Really good stuff.

  44. Wow!

    I hope he doesn’t take it the wrong way!

  45. … so to speak.

  46. Nice post. Having also watched all of the above recently, I was pleased to see some kind words re Survival (though I think I probably like the DOTD remake more than you do, David), and just as happy as you probably were to find that Zombieland is a lovely confection. Short, too.

    I found The Walking Dead a tedious waste of time, though, and The Crazies almost as pointless. Lots of telegraphed scares and a po-faced attitude.

    Finally, re Jim Catweazle: a film critic acquaintance interviewed him years ago, publicising The Count of Monte Cristo, and found him completely impenetrable- no matter what the question, the reply would inevitably pertain to his Christian faith. In desperation, he asked about his co-star Richard Harris – how did he get on with the noted hellraiser? “Oh, Richard was wonderful!” Finally, a change of expression flitted across Jim’s face. “We had this whole long scene in a dungeon, only he and I could fit inside it, and we were just there together for a week, and we talked so much about Jesus and the Bible.”

    Poor Harris died not long after. I think we all know why.

  47. Wow. If somebody’s as monotopic as that, they’re hiding something. Possibly the fact that the film they’re promoting isn’t very interesting.

    It does feel to me that traditional zombies are pretty played-out, and after Walking Dead some radical reinvention is required — the time may be right for the planned Pontypool sequels.

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