George Romero! Zombies! What more do you need to know?

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:31 PM EST

Coppola is the master of machine-gunning people. Sam Peckinpah brings artistry to slo-mo slaughter. Akira Kurosawa stages death by samurai sword like ballet.

Nobody, but nobody, does brain-blasting headshots like George Romero.

Survival of the Dead, the most recent of Romero's apocalyptic, cannibalistic zombie chomp-fests, starts off with a doozie of a headshot. It's disgusting. It's a crowd pleaser that got cheers and whoops at the screening I attended. It's infused with the EC Comics gallows humor that once made for gross-out panels that were a delight for "Ghastly" Graham Ingels to draw and for Fredric (Seduction of the Innocent) Wertham to condemn.

And it's couched in a post-9/11 riff on a breakdown of authority that dredges up the Vietnam-era breakdown of authority that Romero tackled in 1968's Night of the Living Dead—his first zombie parable.

It's this mashing up that makes Romero such a freakin' genius, and that makes his zombie movie slouch maggoty head and shoulders above all others. Romero at his worst is far better than the best Resident Evil movies, because Romero is smart in his fractured ability to splice the sick, the funny and the satiric all in the same shot.

And by "shot," I mean "camera shot" and "high-powered rifle shot between the eyes."

Back in the good old days of the nuke-looming Cold War era, when Romero ended the world in a zombie movie, the finality of apocalypse was absolute. In his most recent zombie movies, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead (and, to a lesser extent, Land of the Dead), the apocalypse feels like just another goddamn thing to deal with, like taking off our shoes at the airport. The suffocating dread of hunching over a crummy TV in a besieged Pennsylvania farmhouse while Pentagon brass-holes lay out Gulf-of-Tonkin-vintage cowflop and finding that all civilian authority can muster to assess the situation is "Yeah, they're dead. They're ... all messed up" has been replaced with jaded "Ahh-what-the-hell" resignation.

Survival of the Dead is about a zombie war, of course. And if we apply Romero's little mantra that "The Zombies Are Us!", the implication here is that even fighting the zombies for such a blue-balled long time and without resolution can "make us the zombies" just as surely as the mindless consumerism lampooned in Dawn of the Dead can, with fewer moral and mental pistons firing than Bub the lovable zombie had going in Day of the Dead.

Survival of the Dead is a war movie. But it's not just about a war with the zombies. The way in which it's about another kind of war makes it stand out, as a satire, from all other Romero zombie movies.

The plot of Survival centers on Sarge Crocket's pack of Army deserters and looters, last seen robbing the protagonists of Diary of the Dead at gunpoint. Sarge and his pals are scavenging the countryside, sort of like a totally amoral version of Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert's Easy Company from the Our Army at War and Sgt. Rock comic books, when they stumble into a conflict between two landowners on an island off the coast of Delaware who decide it's a good use of effort and resources to continue their intergenerational feud while the world is overrun by flesh-eating zombies.

This setup allows Romero to make Survival of the Dead a bone-crunching satire not only of society, but of other movies and movie genres. It's obvious from Creepshow that EC horror comics are near and dear to Romero's heart. But Mad Magazine at its start was also an EC Comic. Survival savages westerns, most especially William Wyler's The Big Country and "Irish Land Dramas" like Ryan's Daughter and the Richard Harris movie The Field in a way that harkens back to the glory days of Mad.

Romero's sixth-grader-hurling-spitballs sense of mischief and dementia holds together all these elements of social satire, apocalyptic horror and parody. Spoiling the melodramatic clichés that Romero savages would be a crime, but I will say that there's moment in which one character appears to be resurrected that is so "WTF?" that it might derail the movie for those who don't get that the plot twist is a joke.

And on its most basic levels, Survival of the Dead gives you some totally awesome, mega-bitchin' zombie fun. Really ... who doesn't want to see cowboys fighting zombies in a totally brain-damaged take on the gunfight at the O.K. Corral? Complete with a cowpoke yelling when things get really hairy, "Let's git outta here, boys!" Wouldn't The Field have been much better with zombies? And The Big Country would have been vastly improved if Burl Ives had been eaten, wouldn't it? The glee with which Romero deconstructs other movies is like a punk band doing covers of classics.

Oh, yeah ... and the zombies eat people really good in this movie, too.

Because this movie is rated R, and not unrated like the first three Dead entries, we don't have anything as gloriously gory as the death of Sgt. Rhodes in Day of the Dead ("CHOKE ON 'EM!"). But Survival still does a bang-up job convincing you that human beings are being ripped apart like overcooked chickens and devoured. So even if the ripping apart of other movie conventions isn't to your taste, Survival is still gonna give you a lot of chomp for your buck.

Survival of the Dead is available now on Video on Demand, to be followed by a theatrical release on May 28.

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