Toronto International Film Festival, day four: The Road, George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead
The zombie ideas have won, as Paul Krugman is fond of saying. I'll be back later today with a full report on the state of the economy after seeing Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story, but first, I should talk about The Road and George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead—two actual sorts of zombie movies that screened here yesterday, both of them disappointments.
Let's start with the father of the zombie genre. Beginning with Night of the Living Dead, Romero has through four decades and five films in this series become a master of making movies about the undead that function both as pulp and as social allegory. Even his underrated Diary of the Dead, which screened at Toronto in 2007, was a powerful endorsement of civilian media in what Romero sees as an age of journalistic irresponsibility. Whereas Survival of the Dead is about…I'm not sure what. At the post-screening Q&A, midnight programmer Colin Geddes asked whether the movie was Romero's attempt to make a western, and whether the feud between the insufferably overacted Scotsman (Richard Fitzpatrick) and the insufferably overacted Irishman (Kenneth Welsh) was supposed to represent Republicans and Democrats. Romero acknowledged that the allegory is a lot more general this time around—that basically, it's a movie about war. I suspect what Survival of the Dead is really about is Romero's desire to make another zombie movie and having the opportunity, even though he'd mostly run out of coherent things to say.
Even sketchy ideas might be okay if the movie were at least scary (or scary-funny), but Romero has boiled this material down to its campiest elements; his sole investment in the direction seems to be in finding as many different angles as possible for blowing zombies' heads off. On the evidence, he's given a cast of mostly unseasoned actors absolutely no help, and while the cheap digital look worked thematically for Diary of the Dead, which was supposed to resemble something you'd find on YouTube, here it's simply hideous.
That's not a complaint you could level at The Road, the long-delayed adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel, which, if nothing else, is real, real purty: The images of the father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) wandering a postapocalyptic, ash-covered America really do linger in your mind. This isn't a literal zombie movie, of course, but that comparison has been made with at least part of the premise, in that it pits man and child against an onslaught of potential attackers who would happily cannibalize them. I had the suspicion that The Road might actually work better as a film, lingering on images that a reader could quickly pass over. Reports from test screenings were all over the map, suggesting, promisingly, that director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) had made a genuinely tough and uncommercial vision—albeit one that some speculate has been subjected to studio tinkering.
Unfortunately, accusations that the movie softens the source material aren't off-base. In particular, The Road slathers on a score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, a lyrical touch that couldn't be more at odds with the jagged, objectifying quality of McCarthy's prose. The story—which should be brutal and demanding from the start—goes down too easily, and the repetitive scenes of Mortensen dispensing wisdom become lulling, even dull. This movie will have its defenders, and not without cause: It has the courage to be bleak (as if it were possible to have this material be anything else) and it is, on its own terms, uncompromising, in the sense that it chooses a particular tone and never relents. And it does pick up for momentary encounters, as when the boy shares food with an old man, or when the father decides the fate of another drifter who would have left him and his son for dead. It's not a dishonorable film, but the story's elemental qualities ultimately come across as pretentious and simplified on screen. Maybe it's not so much a zombie movie as a mummifed one.