Tuesday, March 20, 2012

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Dead (2010)

Last decade -- 2001 to 2010 -- was surely the Decade of the Zombie Movie.  

We had Dawn of the Dead (2004), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), I Am Legend (2007), Zombieland (2009), and many, many more motion pictures of this specific horror sub-genre.  Some would argue that 28 Days Later (2002) was a zombie picture too, for instance, and I'm inclined to agree with that assessment.

As you’ll no doubt recall, the last decade also gave us more real-life strife than we saw in the 1980s and 1990s combined: two very long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, destruction on the home front in the form of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, plus massive natural disasters (Hurricane Katrina), and the global economic meltdown in 2008.  

The zombie movie milieu fits in so perfectly with these aforementioned national and world events because it functions on two levels simultaneously.  

On a literal level, zombie movies concern rampaging monsters that want to eat your flesh and/or brains.  

But on another, more metaphorical level, these movies focus on the collapse of the familiar infrastructure that maintains our high-tech civilization.  Last decade, we saw our towers fall, our cities drown, and our currency lose value.  We saw soldiers patrolling our streets during color-coded alerts.  About the only thing we didn't see were actual zombies.  I sure hope they aren't coming next...

Given the "failure of infrastructure" motif in this genre form, "salvation" in the zombie films arises, largely, from a far-off "sanctuary:" a nearly mythological utopia that is miraculously free of zombie infiltration.  It was a Caribbean island in Day of the Dead (1985), a place "up north" in Land of the Dead (2005) and a colony of healthy survivors in New England in I Am Legend (2007).  

By the same token, the acquisition of (even temporary) sanctuary in the zombie movie format often involves re-connection with our pre-apocalyptic material and technological wealth: the resources of a shopping mall, a video camera, a palatial estate, a skyscraper for the 1% run by Dennis Hopper, a New York apartment with adjoining medical laboratory, and so on.  

In other words, utopia in the New, Post-Zombie Apocalypse World Order is about getting back at least a sliver of the comfortable life we currently enjoy.

But the excellent Ford Brothers film The Dead (2010) offers a unique take on the zombie film milieu.  

By setting the gruesome and harrowing action in the inhospitable and arid deserts of West Africa, it asks audiences to gaze at the zombie apocalypse from another standpoint all together.  

Bluntly stated, there’s nowhere to run, no comfort to accumulate, and the infrastructure is already pretty wasted, even pre-zombie attack.  There's no technology to be harnessed here and very little by way of civilized "connective" tissue.  The roads between villages aren't even paved.  And you may find a ham radio that works...maybe...but not a television set.

The film's main character, a determined American engineer named Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman), survives the zombie apocalypse day-to-day and dreams that his homeland, America, is safe. He dreams that his family is safe too.  But he boasts almost no chance of ever getting back to the people that he loves.  There are no planes remaining after his flight goes down in a crash, and almost no automobiles are operational.  So he must walk...to where, exactly?

Across zombie-filled deserts and mountains...

This treacherous, natural realm is so unsafe that wanderers can't even find just a few hours of peaceful sleep there. A likable character in the film learns this lesson the hard, bloody way.

The message?  The age of human comfort in material things -- and in the trappings of modern civilization -- is truly over.  

Taking place after "The Last Evacuation," The Dead focuses mainly on Brian and  an African soldier named Daniel (Prince David Oseia) as they attempt to regain what they have lost.  

But it's not necessarily civilization, in this case, that they seek.   Rather, it's family.  

Brian wants to get home to his wife and daughter in America, and Daniel has been separated from his young son, who escaped from a village under zombie siege and has been taken by the military to a (hopefully) safe zone.  

These two men -- one African and one American -- become a team in order to meet their mutual goal of reconnecting with those they have loved, and may lose forever.  I found both characters to be incredibly intriguing and didn't want either to die, but, of course, this is a horror movie.  Still, The Dead's strong approach to character development means that you'll find yourself growing disturbed when it looks like your favorite character isn't going to make it out of the latest scrape with the dead.

The Dead is beautifully photographed and absolutely hardcore in terms of presentation.  In the first half of the film, there's very little dialogue, but tons of spilled blood, ripped flesh, and entrails.  Although the focus is on action and horrifying violence, the film successfully draws you in with one cliffhanging, suspenseful scene after the next.

For example, there's a harrowing scene set on an African beach in which hungry zombies move towards the water line while plane crash survivors attempt to swim to shore...in their direction.  One man, Brian, attempts to open a floating crate containing weapons as the zombies tread into the surf, looking to feast.  This sequence is nerve-jangling and graphic, especially as the footage seems to speed up dramatically at moments of highest drama.

Relying heavily on visceral, visual storytelling, The Dead makes an important point in terms of imagery.  The natural environment is plenty daunting even without zombies about.  The movie effortlessly showcases a strong sense of the surrounding wildlife and oppressive heat of the locale, for instance.  But then, with the zombies roaming the countryside, this world becomes absolutely nightmarish.  

As one character states "the Dead are everywhere," and the movie is veritably packed with jolts and jumps.  It gets a lot of mileage from seemingly small moments, like the exploration of a darkened airport with only a single flashlight as illumination.  And The Dead truly gets under your skin with scenes of mounting suspense, when a recalcitrant car won't start, or zombies enter the frame...a few at a time...until they dominate and overwhelm the artful compositions.  

Why does the film work so well, when some of the material is plainly dependent on tropes (such as "the car won't start")?  I'd maintain it's because the film's pace is relentless, and because the directors work overtime to build elaborate action scenes in which the terror multiplies until it becomes virtually unbearable.  This is one of those movies where you'll be squirming in your seat, yelling at a character to look over his shoulder, for god's sake, before it's too late.  

As is the case in other zombie movies, we never learn precisely why the zombie apocalypse comes in The Dead.  There's some talk that the zombie plague may be punishment for man's arrogance, or Mother Nature's way of restoring delicate balance after our sprawl and overpopulation, but nothing definitive.   Instead, the film focuses on an interesting point about what comes after "the end."  

The old labels (African or American, black or white) don't really mean much anymore.  As one character explains "There's a new war.  We have to fight it together."  

What does matter, the film suggests, is our common humanity. At film's conclusion two very different families join together because, in the end, we are all members of the human tribe, the human family. So The Dead implies, rather unequivocally, that recovering technology or wealth isn't going to save us in the event of a disaster.  What will?  The human bonds, like those between parent and child.  When all Hell breaks loose, that's what counts, that's what matters.  Just when all looks hopeless in The Dead, a father and son discover each other.  That they are biologically unrelated matters not a lick. They both need to be part of a family.  They need to be together.

The Dead is smart, nasty, brutal and beautifully presented. You would think it's pretty tough for a zombie movie to find a niche for itself in today's over-saturated environment, where we feel like we've seen every trick in the book.  But The Dead is not at a retread or copy of any other zombie film you've seen before.  It takes the familiar sub-genre -- and like so many of the great zombie efforts last decade -- injects it with fresh new blood and, perhaps more importantly, fresh...brains.


  1. George10:02 AM

    No comments for The Dead yet? This movie was great and probably the best "Romero" zombie movie since Day of the Dead. I'm pretty strict with my zombie movies. The original Dead trilogy, Zombie, the Max Brooks books and the first 15 minutes of the Dawn remake are what appeal to me most in a zombie story. The basic premise of one on one the zombies are easy to handle, but the problem is there are SO MANY you quickly get overwhelmed.

  2. George: I agree with you totally that The Dead is great. The film resurrects the basic premise you describe (about overwhelming numbers...) and does so beautifully. Thematically, the film also works splendidly. The characters here are great, and you come to care for them. I think the film's commentary on family also distinguishes it from the pack.

    Great comment!


  3. I've heard great things about this film, John. So glad to hear you enjoyed it (I've updated my Netflix queue because of that). I think your analysis as to the reason we've seen this jump in the number of 'zombie' films is spot-on. I also think it good that the Ford Brothers are injecting a fresh take on the genre as that number, I believe, is beginning to make it very timeworn and a little stale (don't forget about the 'Resident Evil' franchise ;-) in all of this).

    I do believe there is another way to look at this particular sub-genre of horror, and it relates back to Richard Matheson's 'I Am Legend' and George Romero's 'Night of the Living Dead' masterpieces. Obviously the fear of death remains prominent in both. I mean, nothing in the real-world defeats it. Yet, in either work, we (the human beings and victims) get to carry on in an altogether wholly different existence. Arguably, whether any 'undead' form is worth it comes into play, as well. Nevertheless, like many tenets of various religions, it macabrely gives the allusion of hope: Death defeated.

    I just a thought. Thanks, John.