This time, it’s not only the zombies who look a mess. “George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead,” the sixth installment in the writer-helmer’s long-running franchise, is steeped in fan-pleasing gore but woefully thin on ideas, originality (beyond new zombie-offing methods) or directorial flair. Picking up threads from “Diary of the Dead” but with fresh character meat, “Survival” unfolds on an island where the ambulatory deceased are piggies in the middle of a feud between still-breathing locals. Romero’s hordes of faithful fans will shuffle out regardless, but theatrical prospects look to be as limited as the last entry’s were.
Entirely filmed in Canada instead of the Pennsylvania locations used in the earlier episodes of the franchise, “Survival” sets the action mainly on a fictional Plum Island in Delaware. It’s been six days since the dead began to walk, per onscreen titles, and two local families, the O’Flynns and the Muldoons, are at loggerheads about how to deal with the zombie incursion.
The O’Flynns’ patriarch (Kenneth Welsh) prefers a zero-tolerance approach, exterminating the infected with extreme prejudice. The Muldoon clan chief (Richard Fitzpatrick) insists they should chain up the zombies, especially those related to him, and wait for a cure.
O’Flynn is outnumbered in a standoff and forced into exile on the mainland with a few fellow clansmen. Seeking revenge, he posts a video on a YouTube-like site inviting people to come to Plum, hoping more zombies will get to the island to bedevil Muldoon and Co. He also takes advantage of the opportunity to stop some sanctuary seekers for a bit of highway robbery.
Meanwhile, a renegade band of soldiers, first met in “Diary,” hook up with an unnamed teenage boy (Devon Bostick, who, like nearly all the thesps here, is Canadian) who tells them about O’Flynn’s video invitation. Hard-nosed squad leader Sarge (Alan Van Sprang, veteran of “Diary of the Dead” and its predecessor, “Land of the Dead”) begrudgingly agrees to go to Plum with him and the squad. After a quayside shootout with O’Flynn and some inevitable zombie-battling, the squad make it to the island, where they find numerous zombies chained like dogs, still going about the chores (posting letters, plowing fields) they vaguely remember from their lives.
The best installments in the franchise, the original “Night of the Living Dead” and its follow-up, “Dawn of the Dead,” elegantly infused the horror with social commentary, deftly weaving subtextual critiques of racism and consumerism, respectively, into their flesh-munching narratives. The less assured “Land” still offered a savvy metaphor for the paranoia of gated communities, while the slapdash but still admired “Diary” commented on a media- and technology-obsessed youth culture.
It’s hard to see, however, what Romero is getting at in “Survival.” There seems to be no hidden figure under the carpet here, no serious undertow to counterpoint the eventually repetitive slaughter. By the time the 20th zombie is shot through the head, the characters look outright bored — as will many auds — and there’s little of the poignancy found in the earlier pics when newly infected loved ones must be slain before they zombify.
It doesn’t help that the motivations are so clumsily handled. O’Flynn, for instance, says he sent out the video to get more zombies to go to the island, and so he could make a few bucks out of armed robbery. But he also says he genuinely wanted to help people looking for refuge — say what? Romero can’t have it all ways.
The script’s shallowness would be more forgivable if the direction weren’t so inert, the mayhem so off-the-rack, and the whole thing so lacking in, well, scares. This is easily the least frightening of all the “Dead” movies.
Special effects makeup by Francois Dagenais looks appropriately juicy and ghoulish, but then, even the still-living characters have an unhealthy pallor about them. Running time feels longer than it should; other tech credits are subpar.