Review: ‘The Dead’
Zombies Invade Africa
Thursday, January 19, 2012
Zombies have been all the rage in recent years but in 2012 they are supposedly passé. Well, people keeping trying to lay zombies to rest and they keep rising up from the grave. Max Brooks' book "World War Z" will arrive on the big screen this year with none other than A-list star Brad Pitt so if the genre is dying out it is not going out quietly. The key to whether or not zombies will play well or not has to do with whether the filmmakers using them have a genuine point of view and reason for tapping into the genre. The reason why zombies are so popular with filmmakers and authors is that they are blank slates that can be used for anything. George A. Romero is of course the master. Not only did he launch the American contemporary zombie film in 1968 but he also showed us in films like "Night of the Living Dead," "Dawn of the Dead," "Day of the Dead," and "Land of the Dead" how they could be used for clever social commentary.
The Ford Brothers (Howard and Jonathan) definitely have a reason why they want to use zombies. The British filmmaking brothers are touting their film as the first horror film shoot entirely in Africa, and they use the zombie apocalypse as a means of showing what extremes are necessary to finally bring about racial and ethnic tolerance. (Plus their film was actually made in 2010 before zombies found themselves on the what's not hot list.)
Set in an unnamed war-torn region of West Africa, the film begins with the zombie apocalypse already in full swing. The first zombie we meet is a definite throwback to the slow moving Romero breed. These are not infected people ("28 Days Later") or fast moving CGI-ed creatures ("I Am Legend"). They are good old-fashioned vacant-eyed, lumbering undead craving human flesh. The first image is a beautifully creepy zombie with a broken and partially gnawed leg dangling disturbingly from the sloth-like undead figure. A human moves across the landscape as well. The man ponders killing the zombie or simply walking past it. At this point it's hard to tell which is more weary and braindead, the human or the zombie.
The film then flashes back to introduce us to American military engineer Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman). We get his backstory as well as the backstory for Daniel Dembele (Prince David Osei), a local soldier who left his post to return to his village in search of his family. The two men meet up, united by a desire to find their families and to survive the zombie onslaught.
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"The Dead" is refreshing for being a throwback to early Romero zombie films. Despite a low budget, the effects are well executed and satisfyingly gruesome. Visually they look like a cross between the original "Night of the Living Dead" zombies and the voodoo controlled creatures of the old "I Walked with a Zombie." The Ford brothers do a great job creating the zombie-infested world and conveying the mix of chaos and boredom that comes when society is turned upside down.
The problem with the film, though, is that unlike Romero, the Ford boys put their message in the forefront rather than letting the social commentary flow unobstrusively from the action. They deliver an unsubtle political allegory that uses the zombie apocalypse to throw into bold relief how stupid humans are for fighting amongst themselves. The woodenness of lead actor Freeman doesn't help their cause. His stiffness makes the simplistic lines he's ask to deliver sound even more cliched and forced.
There is also some awkwardness by focusing -- like almost every other film set in Africa -- on a white man's story. The bulk of the film is focused on Murphy with only a fraction of his journey being a joint one with Dembele. Less than half the film is this black-white buddy horror road film. But it's uncomfortable to have shots of the white man literally carrying the black man on his back and in a later scene having Murphy welcomed into a compound by the black refugees like some sort of savior. Such images delivered with more irony might give an edge to the Ford brothers' message but they are presented with such straight-faced earnestness that they feel awkward. There is a lot of room for savage satire (especially regarding the white man's role in African violence) but the Fords miss those opportunities for something softer and more generic. Maybe the fact that they are from the UK rather than Africa has something to do with it. Africa to them is more like a backdrop than an environment that truly generates the film's themes. The sci-fi film "District 9" was much better at using Africa as both a setting, and a source of political and social themes.
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As filmmakers, the Fords use the landscape well and compose many surprisingly beautiful images. For the most part they avoid the fast cuts and shaky camera work that dominates the horror genre. They riff on other films from the genre but not with the sense of fun that Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg displayed in "Shaun of the Dead." So sometimes it's hard to tell if the references are knowing or not. As when Murphy tries to change a tire as zombies approach, much like the scene in "28 Days Later."
"The Dead" (in English and some African dialects with English subtitles, and rated R by the MPAA for bloody zombie violence and gore) is not the great zombie film I was hoping for but it does deliver a more grown-up horror film that eschews gimmicky shakycam and CGI to try and tell a real story, and for that I am appreciative.
Companion viewing: "Night of the Living Dead," "I Walked with a Zombie," "District 9"