At this point in the game, I think it’s safe to say that zombie fiction, be it books, movies, or comics, is the new ‘thing’. The niche once occupied by teen vampire fiction is now almost solely filled with tales of the undead. The clever and well-written Zombie Survival Guide has spawned dozens of copycat attempts at cashing in on America’s obsession with zombies. The Walking Dead is breaking cable TV records left and right, and there’s at least three cars in the parking lot of my college library with bumper stickers reading ‘I Heart Brains’. Everybody loves zombies.
That being said, I’m skeptical of any zombie movie that comes out these days. I think the last new one I watched was Undead and to say I was disappointed is an understatement. I simply don’t trust anything coming from a genre that is fueled by people trying to make money off of a popular idea. It doesn’t make for good art.
I first read about the Ford Brothers’ zombie film The Dead in an issue of Famous Monsters in which the makeup artist was being interviewed, and I admit at that point I was mildly intrigued. The zombie design was traditional yet innovative: fresh wounds, whiteout contact lenses, bloodied clothing, etc. Nothing new or amazing but just enough pizazz to stick out from the pack. Flash forward two years, and I grab a copy at Target last week. Why the hell not, right?
The Dead takes place in sub-Saharan Africa just after a Romero style zombie apocalypse. We are treated to brief shots of zombie induced mayhem as the undead hordes lay siege to an African village: shambling wrecks of human beings attacking and eating their kin, things being set on fire, guns going off as inept military personnel try to contain this horrific outbreak. The main character is an American military operative named Murphy who catches the last plane out of the area. Unfortunately, the plane crashes and now he has to make it out on foot. He joins up with a stoic African soldier named Dembele who is trying to get to a military base ‘up North’ to find his son. The film follows them as they make their way through a countryside turned on it’s head by the zombie outbreak.
If this film has a fault, it’s that it is almost too ambitious. Now, I’ll take ‘too ambitious’ over lazy film making any day of the week. The problem is that I think the Ford brothers lack the filmmaking experience to create the film they intend to. Attempts at creative cinematography, while appreciated, just come off as forced and quasi-pretensious. The storyline about Dembele’s son and Murphy's family 'back home', while trying to inject a sense of humanity into the story, just fall into almost corny territory and is distracting from the horror of the situation their in. And the ending, while meaning to be Romero-ly ambiguous, is just confusing and rushed.
That being said, this was a good film. The gore was tasteful and well-executed, with actual prosthetics being used most of the time instead of throwing buckets of CGI blood left and right. Also, the violence was contained and not everywhere for violence’s sake. Storyline was not sacrificed for gore and a high body count. Yes, there were scenes of gratuitious violence. But it was necessary for the story and not just thrown in for a gross out factor. Not all of the camerawork was hokey and dreadfully serious; at times it created a sense of aching isolation and vastness. The nighttime shots of the savannah were particularly striking, especially with a peppering of zombies wandering about in the sunset. The dialogue was sparse and realistic in the sense that you felt you were watching how two military men would actually act in the situation. No jabbering on about bullshit, no tough guy antics about getting the job done. Just two guys trying to get something done. The utilitarian and grim aspects of surviving are examined in a detail I haven't seen in a zombie movie before. At one point, the radiator of their car gives up it's ghost in the middle of the savannah, and they are forced to choose between having drinking water and continuing on foot through the desert or using that water to fill the radiator and driving for who knows how long without water. Hastening their decision is the fact that a couple dozens zombies are steadily making their way to them. It's the little things, folks.
And most of all, this film was scary. The zombies didn’t run, or shriek, or commit any of the other sins dozens of horror films are guilty of. They just shambled about silently, dead eyes fixed off in the distance, wandering about until some poor bastard gained their attention. Any time they came wandering out of the bush at night was creepy as fuck, and the scenes of them silhouetted against the sky at sunset was genuinely eerie.
I’d give this film a B-. In a world awash with counterfeit bullshit, this is a refreshing look at what a zombie movie ought to be: a stark and minimal look at a world cast into madness and our attempts at survival in said world.