Blu-ray review: THE DEAD - Africa's Zombie Nation

If you watch zombie films to see people getting their faces blown off and their heads run over by car tyres then, rather like a poor porno, you’ll find yourself fast-forwarding through this to the ‘good’ bits which are certainly there to be found.

I€™m not a big fan of zombie films, for very much the same reason I don€™t really have time for stalk and slash films € Because they€™re all the same! I€™ve seen Psycho (1960), Halloween (1978) and Scream (1996), that€™s all I need. Similarly, with zombies, I€™ve seen all the George Romero films and find no one else€™s take on his zombie idea really adds anything. We all die. The end. Seen it; next please. But, every now and then, someone comes along with a different take on the same old motifs. Shaun of the Dead (2004), very obviously, added lovable characters, an English setting and a sense of hope that the American zombie films lack. Has The Dead, written, produced, shot and directed by English brothers Jon and Howard Ford €“ available now on Blu-Ray and DVD €“ similarly re-defined the genre? Well, things start off promisingly enough €“ the setting is Africa. Interesting; haven€™t seen an exotic location used since the early days of the proto-zombie, Jacques Tourneur€™s I Walked With a Zombie (1943) or, arguably, Wes Craven€™s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) €“ both of which feature traditional Haitian-style hypnotised zombies rather than the undead brain-munching variety to which we have grown accustomed. However, this setting also brings with it an inherent problem. Back in 2009, the video-game Resident Evil 5 was released and encountered a flurry of controversy for depicting black zombies in Africa being killed by white protagonists. This, it was claimed (in this review, for example), was resurrecting not only the dead, but also the old racist notion of Africa being the €˜dark continent€™ full of dangerous, primitive dark people. Well, if that was true of that game, it must be true of this film too! The protagonists (one white, with a black companion for part of his journey) travel for days through African bush, encountering villages and deserted airfields but no actual towns or cities or paved roads or any signs of developed 21st century civilisation. With the exception of Daniel (Prince David Oseia), the local soldier who accompanies the white American, Brian (Rob Freeman) all the black Africans we meet are either on the point of dying or have already done so and are shuffling around in bare feet and rags. Why did the protagonist have to be American (rhetorical question, I know, it€™s so Americans will watch the movie), why did he have to be white and why did all (barring two, by my count) of the zombies have to be black? The brothers (do you think they€™d mind me calling them €˜Joward€™?) have clearly read every word of Robert Rodriguez€™s book Rebel Without a Crew because they tackle every major job on this film themselves (including, no doubt, brewing the tea) and have consciously set out to make their movie different from the hoards of other zombie films shambling around out there € The location is novel, the fact that it is largely set in daylight is audacious, the cinematography (by brother Jon) is lovely, making full use of the possibilities offered by the exotic locations and you must admire the sheer determination it must have taken to get a film made in that part of the world. If only they€™d hired a proper writer. The plot is perfunctory (let€™s wander around aimlessly from minor peril to minor peril € padding the film out with endless sequences of driving) the dialogue at best functional and at worst risible and the acting is stilted and emotionless. Now, I hesitate to blame Rob Freeman, who is a jobbing actor with twenty years of credits behind him, since he is clearly doing the best he can with the material he is given. He provides a fine line in looking worried and manages to carry this movie mostly alone and mostly without dialogue€ But, to care about him, we have to see him being a human being. He has to have some human interaction. There is an odd sequence when a dying woman begs him to protect her baby and, I thought, is this going to turn into a Hard Boiled (1992) mash-up, with him fighting through the wilderness to protect the baby? Is this going to offer the film the subtext it has so far lacked with this young life being nurtured amongst all this old death? No. He just hands it to someone in a convenient passing truck. The only passing truck he sees in the entire run of the film. Didn€™t think to get aboard himself, though, did he? No, he just carries on walking and worrying about his water supply. Given that there is no infrastructure in this part of the world €“ no roads, no towns, no signs of life - there seems to be a surprisingly high population of walking dead. Wherever he drives and whenever he stops, several of them can be seen shambling around in the distance. Appropriately, he never panics, since these are proper Romero zombies he can quite easily go around them or, in one inevitable moment, over them. I must concede that the depiction of the undead is particularly unsettling. They are completely silent which leads to some particularly effective scenes of suspense. So, creepy, certainly; but terrifying? No. The iconic red African soil is a particularly appropriate backdrop for the - for want of a more accurate term - €˜action€™ but there is no attempt to exploit this symbolically. Similarly, there is no attempt to explain the zombie infestation€ Is it an American weapon, a virus, a fallen satellite? The closest we get to subtext is when Daniel mentions that he doesn€™t understand the Americans bombing the country then sending in doctors. The social commentary that marks out the superior zombie films is missing, the sense of doomed hysteria that identifies the more recent entries in the genre is similarly lacking, as Brian wanders across Africa in an unhurried and generally very calm manner. This scenario is full of unexploited potential. The pace is leisurely, the threat just isn€™t very threatening and, ironically for a road movie, the narrative lacks drive. The film€™s strength is it cinematography and editing€ Its weaknesses are, well, everything else. This is why I feel that The Brothers Joward really needed to hire a better script-writer and possibly even a stronger director to make the most of their story and milk the most from their actors. So, if you watch zombie films to see people getting their faces blown off and their heads run over by car tyres then, rather like a poor porno, you€™ll find yourself fast-forwarding through this to the €˜good€™ bits which are certainly there to be found. If, however, you crave for a zombie film with some social subtext which sheds light on contemporary life and the human condition, you€™ll be far better off sticking Dawn of the Dead on again!

Extras:

A few perfunctory junket interviews are the only extra the check disc boasted - which is a shame, because I feel that this film could develop something of a cult and the Ford Brothers could get themselves a following, if more care had been lavished on welcoming viewers behind the scenes. They certainly hint at some fascinating making-of stories when they talk about the difficulties of making a film in what was, essentially, a war-zone. I remain unconvinced by this movie but I notice it has been getting some very positive buzz elsewhere, so I'm forced to conclude that it didn't work for me because, as I€™ve mentioned, I€™m very picky about my zombie films and these days they almost always disappoint me € But what do you guys think of it? The Dead is out now Blu-ray.
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John Ashbrook has been publishing half-assed opinions about films, TV shows et al for twenty years now. He's hosted radio shows, taught Film Studies, written books and magazine articles by the cartload and now composes his own film review blog The Cellulord is Watching ... (www.cellulord.co.uk). Of course, what he *really* wants to do is direct.