Movie Mobsters Rating:
You can feel the weariness setting into the zombie sub-genre.
We have had every variation on Night of the Living Dead over the past few years, with every potential title arrangement accompanying them. Now, there’s the British Ford brothers and their African zombie pic, The Dead. No fancy modifiers or descriptors. Just The Dead. That ebbing energy that imbues the clipped title is also present in the film itself. The Dead is a serviceable horror thriller if zombies are your thing, but it carries around a tired, dim aura that matches this reviewer’s own exhaustion with the undead hordes. Fight all you want, struggle against the apocalypse, but no matter what continent you flee too, the lumbering masses are still waiting to remove your brain.
Although it wholly avoids the hipness and cultural vulgarity associated with most recent zombie films, The Dead is too enthrall to the style of the (self-proclaimed) maestro, George Romero, to ever really succeed And never mind that the Ford brothers have made a film that trumps Romero’s last three zombie excursions, they still rely too heavily on trite and uninteresting gore effects, stilted acting and bulky political metaphor that gets unpacked in inopportune moments. The glimmers of real talent the duo have come through in the execution. This is a methodical, surprisingly dread-inducing slog through the end of the world that specializes in the whimper over the bang and gets much mileage from the sight of hordes of rotting corpses meandering over rugged, beautiful African scenery.
Ultimately, that slow, understated vibe does the film in because the Ford brothers don’t have any original ideas to add to their zombie arsenal and the plot is anemically thin. An American engineer, Brian Murphy, finds himself stranded in Africa when a zombie plague hits and his plane full of Christian missionaries goes down thanks to the ghouls. For a very long time, it seems that’s all there will be—the white Anglo Brian battling blood-thirsty African zombies—most of them local peasants turned rotting murderous—as he tries to make his way back to the states. Then, we get a second protagonist, native soldier Daniel Dembele, who crosses paths with Brian while looking for his lost son and saves the latter from becoming so much zombie excrement on the pavement. The two men team-up and take on an indeterminably long trek to freedom, along the way talking just enough to pay lip-service to the themes of social struggle and international tension, before being set upon again by monsters.
The acting is not accomplished but then, neither is the direction of the dialogue. The Ford brothers do best when they are shooting the pair wandering aimlessly, trying to evade the zombies, who litter almost every single frame of the flick. Reminding one of images of Rwandan genocide, the zombie violence in The Dead has a harrowingly mundane and realistic feel. There are no arterial sprays fit for Fangoria, or humorously graphic deconstructions of the human physiology. There’s plenty of gore, but most of it has been toned down to the realm of plausibility. The Dead, for better or worse, is depressingly rooted in the more logical aspects of its story. If you spend your time studying zombies, collecting every film that comes down the pike, or consider yourself a purveyor of make-up and grue fx than The Dead will probably satisfy you.
For the rest of us, it’s a unfortunate miss. There’s a tantalizing set-up, moving the plague of living dead from modern convenience to a more rural, removed setting, propping them up against the canvas of another continents struggles. The idea that the creatures are simply everywhere—wandering along desert dunes, sulking through cornfields, tripping across arid veldts—is compelling but goes nowhere. I didn’t even get my much-desired lion vs. zombie fight.
The first half of the film paints a serviceable end times scenario, and here the Ford brothers achieve what is undoubtedly their main goal; proving themselves worthy of a better, bigger picture. It’s when The Dead slows down and tries for drama that it falls apart, and its ambitions with it. I was terminally bored during almost all of the second and third acts, and no trick the film tried ever truly gained back my investment. There’s talent on display here, but it’s all going to the purpose of trying to resuscitate a long-dead corpse.
There may be a future for the zombie picture, but the way forward does not lie in the past or with Romero’s now deteriorated shambling groaners. The Fords, however, will have a bright future in film if they can but shrug off the burden of their inspirations.