British zombie film The Dead finally hid DVD last week. In this film, the zombie outbreak is centered in Africa. Lieutenant Brian Murphy was on one of the last evacuations flights leaving the contaminated area, when the plane went down. The only survivor, he began making his way toward some semblance of civilization in the hopes of finding rescue. Along the way, he meets African soldier Sgt. Daniel Dembele (Prince David Oseia ). They agree to team up, in the hopes of getting Brian to a nearby air field so that he might return home to his family, and to get Daniel to a military base reported to be safe, in the hopes of reuniting with his son.
I had first read about The Dead a couple of months ago, and was psyched. Zombies terrorizing Africa sounded awesome – nobody had done it before, it offered an totally new landscape and aesthetic to the genre – a great backdrop for a hopeless survivor story. And it featured the slow, puttering zombies of old (refreshing!). Unfortunately, The Dead only hit about half of its marks.
As a zombie film, The Dead is fairly solid. The Ford Brothers paid particular attention to the Romero tradition of zombie films, and adhered to all of its rules. We don’t know why the dead are returning to life, the word “zombie” is never uttered, the undead can be taken down by a shot or a blow to the head, and the zombies are slow, shambling remnants of humanity. All of these points are quietly present – the directors never draw attention to them.
The zombies were legitimately creepy, so props to the directors on that. They stagger around quietly, yet steadily, so a couple of them seem harmless at first, but the tension builds as they continue to get closer to our protagonist. The make-up work is good (for the most part), and they don’t cheap out on severed limbs and smashed heads.
While the horror elements were good, it was in the surrounding story that The Dead faltered. It just didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be. The horror elements were solid, but every attempt to broaden or deepen the story away only made it feel more confused. Again referencing the Romero tradition, The Ford brothers seemed to be trying to make a social statement with their zombie film. What what that statement was, I have no idea. Was this about racial inequality? Poverty? Hunger? World policy? War? AIDS? Take your pick. It seemed to change with every scene, and no specific statements were made. Unless their intention was to leave it purposefully vague in the hopes that the audience would fill in the blanks with whatever struck their fancy (in which case, TOTALLY LAZY). They really tried to hammer the message of “hope” but I’m still not sure what for. Other than “hope for not becoming a zombie,” of course.
The plot tends to get pretty repetitive, as we watch the pair encounter similar obstacles time and time again. Namely, they encounter an obstacle of some sort, get out of the car to take care of said obstacle, are surrounded by the undead as they are working, and must work quicker to alleviate obstacle before eaten alive by zombies. Each individual scene works pretty well on its own, with the extremely slow, yet constant pace of the zombies creating tension, but we get tired of seeing over and over again.
The acting was pretty inconsistent. In the first act, when Murphy is wandering around on his own (and not talking) Rob Freeman does a pretty solid job. These silent scenes are interesting as we watch him get his bearings after the plane crash and attempt to survive on his own. He seems like a pretty solid protagonist. He slides downhill after he meets Daniel, and comes across as a very weak character as a result of his dialogue. There is no strength in anything that he says, he can be a little whiny, and much of his delivery comes off as wooden. Oseia, on the other hand, is a solid actor in the role of Daniel. He is able to convey a lot through his eyes, and does well in the part of the stoic soldier.
Ultimately, The Dead was an interesting idea that sort of lost itself along the way. Political and social statements have long been an important part of the tradition of zombie movies, but we count on the filmmaker to know what those statements are ahead of time, and to be able to convey them in at least a semi-elegant manner. All of the zombie stuff was good, but the story in between just felt hollow. There were some excellent scenes thrown into the mix, but they were not enough to set the tone for the entire film; there was too much empty space in between them.