[ Skip Navigation ]

Because you are using a browser that does not support web-standards, you have been routed to the basic version of our web site. You still have access to all of the site's content, but for the full experience you need to upgrade your browser.


Survival of the Dead

Bonni McCoy, C&EN Contributing Editor

poster When George A. Romero debuted the zombie horror film “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968, he gave the world a frightening, grainy bit of cinematic wonder that’s still terrifying more than 40 years later. Fast forward four decades and five “… of the Deads” later to “Survival of the Dead”—the most recent installment in Romero’s zombie empire—where the undead still roam slowly, stiff-leggedly about, but this time every ounce of terror has been displaced by a giant, blood-spurting bowl of silly.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, it’s a whole lot of fun to watch the goofiness unfold. With “Survival” Romero delivers his signature package of gory mayhem embedded in an adventure story puffed with sociopolitical allegory.

“Survival of the Dead” concerns two warring clans, the O’Flynns and the Muldoons, who reside off the coast of Delaware on isolated Plum Island. In the wake of the zombocalypse, these age-old rivals continue to draw lines in the sand: The O’Flynns, led by patriarch Patrick (Welsh), believe the ghouls ought to be shot dead immediately, while Seamus Muldoon (Fitzpatrick) and his family choose to chain their zombie kin, thus keeping the still-living out of harm’s way while a “cure” is sought.

It’s tempting to consider the Muldoons’ position as a reflection of the sanctity-of-life ethic, but that would imply a seriousness of purpose this film probably never intended. In fact, “Survival of the Dead” is deliberately and relentlessly unsophisticated, its zombie-Western motif replete with livestock, twangy guitars, shotguns, and verdant rolling hills. What’s more, although Romero’s masterful editing and camerawork keep the action moving, we never truly fear for the characters’ demise; hammy dialogue and slapstick humor render them little more than cartoons. The exception here is actor Welsh, whose rascally sea captain Patrick O’Flynn ratchets up the humanity quotient whenever he’s on screen.

“Survival” will rally fans primarily for its abundance of inventive, gross-out zombie killings, and although naysayers may well take umbrage with its low-grade CGI and illogical plot, those calculatedly artless elements are part and parcel of the film’s transparent artifice. As such, the film mirrors and magnifies the prevailing absurdity of partisan political posturing and senseless human suffering.

Lively debate among zombie film enthusiasts invariably raises these questions: Are zombies getting smarter? Can zombies evolve? Reel Science posed these questions to Robert Smith? (the question mark is part of his name), an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s department of mathematics and coauthor of the article “When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modeling of an Oubreak of Zombie Infection.”

“In ‘Survival of the Dead’ we see some zombie evolution. Their brains start to regain some abilities,” Smith? tells Reel Science. “They drive cars and ride horses (with varying ability). However, what’s perhaps most scientific about the film is the way the humans test the zombies’ abilities, attempting to get them to evolve. We see a careful and methodical process as different options are tested, the results informing new options and new conclusions drawn.”

Steven Schlozman, codirector of medical student education in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and longtime zombiphile, shared his take on the zombies’ intellectual advances: “Zombies spread rapidly because the humans are both vector and the embodiment of the disease. From an evolutionary standpoint, you could argue that their otherwise unlikely rapid evolutionary change is possible because they are evolving as a function of random adaptive changes consistent with the short life span of a microbiological contagion.” When zombies learn to hunt, it’s not unlike viruses or bacteria that mutate to become drug resistant, he explains. The viruses and other infectious agents don’t mutate on purpose, they just have short life spans that allow for rapid and random mutations.

Schlozman also addressed how the condition proliferates: “From a disease-modeling perspective, a zombie contagion has a special niche: They don’t kill their hosts, so their hosts stay animated to spread the bug. Also, whatever is in the air that changes folks in the first place can also reanimate the dead, even if they are not bitten or otherwise infected through contact with a separate zombie. In other words, we have a rapidly spreading bug that would then enjoy the benefits of evolutionary changes that quick dissemination affords.”

Clearly, this assessment should raise hope in the hearts of zombaholics: Mutations = change = more loony carnage (aka “sequels”). For now, though, there’s “Survival of the Dead,” and thanks to Romero’s skillful pacing, Welsh’s roguish charm as O’Flynn, some resonating social commentary, and—most important—a boatload of zaniness courtesy of the zombie world, “Survival of the Dead” is bound to soldier on in cultdom, outliving us all.