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At first glance, the title of George A. Romero’s latest zombie film seems like a joke. Not only is Survival of the Dead a contradiction in terms, but it’s also a sly nod to the resilience of Romero’s long-running “... of the Dead” franchise, which began in 1968 with the game-changing Night of the Living Dead. Romero, the undisputed Grandfather of the Zombie Movie and a figurehead of American independent filmmaking, has gained ample esteem in cult movie circles and flirted with mainstream commercial success. And, as of recently, he’s also become Canadian. (Well, more or less.)

In his 40-plus years as a filmmaker, which began after he graduated from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University in 1960, Romero worked predominantly out of Pennsylvania, shooting his films in small towns like Monroeville, Natrona, and Evans City. He churned out classics like Night and its 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead, as well as 1977’s similarly excellent Martin and a handful of curiosities like the kiddie-friendly Creepshow anthology and, most memorably, the epic Knightriders, a 145-minute film about a group of wayfaring entertainers who joust on dirt bikes and spout Arthurian philosophy. But in 2000, he decamped north of the border to Toronto to shoot Bruiser, a low-budget thriller that went straight to DVD.

“Pittsburgh dried up and I came up here and fell in love with the place,” Romero says of Toronto. “I realized it’s not going to dry up here, so I stuck around.”

In 2005, after a 20-year hiatus from the flesh-eating ghouls that still dominate his filmography, Romero returned to his “Dead” series with Land of the Dead, which saw Toronto passing for metropolitan Pittsburgh. Starring John Leguizamo and the late Dennis Hopper, and boasting an estimated budget of $16 million (which it easily recouped), Land was a commercial success. The film proved both that Romero was still the master of the zombie movie genre he helped define and, perhaps more importantly, that Toronto – with its inviting tax credits designed to lure American film productions north of the border – was a profitable city in which to ply his trade. But it was more than just the economic incentives that kept him in Toronto.

“It’s the clean New York,” Romero says. “There’s everything here.”

After the success of Land of the Dead, he made Toronto his adopted hometown and shot 2007’s Diary of the Dead, which earned mixed reviews but decent box office receipts. In 2009 Romero acquired permanent resident status in Canada. At that year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the annual Zombie Walk drew a massive crowd of costumed undead who shuffled across town to Yonge-Dundas Square to cheer in un-zombie-like fashion as the latest landed master of the macabre was officially welcomed to the city.

“I can’t vote, as much as I’d like to,” says Romero of his shiny new status. “But I can do everything else. I am, in my heart, a Canadian.”

This year sees Romero again returning to his well-trodden zombie myths with Survival of the Dead, easily the most determined entry in the series since Dawn in 1978. Another modestly budgeted indie shot around Hamilton and the Greater Toronto Area, Survival is carried by scads of Canadian talent, including Hard Core Logo’s Julian Richings, The Tudors’ Alan Van Sprang (who reprises his role as Sarge “Nicotine” Crocket from Diary of the Dead), ACTRA award-winning Hamilton-born actress Kathleen Munroe, and even a cameo by George Stroumboulopoulos, appropriately cast as a smart-alecky late-night host broadcasting into the apocalypse.

“I wrote this scene where these guys were still doing a homegrown talk show, their own kind of Letterman,” says Romero. “And I figured what better guy?”

The story of two rival (and inexplicably Irish) clans fighting a turf war on an isolated island in the midst of the undead epidemic that forms the backdrop of the other films in the series, Survival of the Dead is a fairly compelling, and certainly plenty gory, zombie flick. But at times it trips itself up in the allegorical importance people have been ascribing to Romero’s films since he chose to cast a black actor, Duane Jones, in the non-race-specific lead role in Night of the Living Dead. With plot points that involve zombie rehabilitation, and heated debates over zombie rights (because, you know, zombies are people too), Survival bites off more grandiose themes than it can chew.

Nonetheless, it remains pleasant horror fare chock full of all the jump cuts, headshots, jugular gnashing, and shambling undead hordes that have come to distinguish Romero’s films, and the zombie film sub-genre in general. Romero is still able to build suspense without resorting to the sprinting assailants that have superficially invigorated the genre since Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.  

Romero’s style and thematic preoccupations remain instantly recognizable, and his zombie-movie cottage industry is a welcome addition to Canada’s cinematic landscape, both culturally and industry-wise. And, as of now, he shows no signs of leaving Canada.

“Anything else that I do, I’ll do it here,” Romero says. He pauses for a moment and laughs. “As long as it doesn’t have to be set in Chile or something.”

Illustration by: TIM BARNARD