Stars:Elizabeth Akingbade, Benjamin C. Akpa and Stephen Asare Amaning
When the last evacuation flight out of war-torn Africa crashes off the coast, an American Air Force Engineer emerges as the sole survivor in a land where the dead are returning to life and attacking the living.
This is a movie that truly hearkens back to the glory days of Romero and Fulci. It borrows liberally from the outputs of both artists, while managing to make the whole endeavour feel fresh and vital again. Anyone who holds a place in their heart for the slow, lurching undead of old, had better book a seat for this one. These are the zombies most of us grew up with, and while over the years their marathon sprinting replacements have upped the stakes in terms of action in horror; for a truly creepy apocalyptic world, you just gotta turn to the shamblers, man. There is no other way.
THE DEAD is packed with, 'traditional' zombie action. From the very first, (and extremely cool) scene, we're thrown into a devastated world where few are living, no one is safe and the dead have taken full control of a continent. Its never explained why this phenomenon has occurred, (thank god), and the characters never bother to really ask the question. After all, were someone with rotting flesh and dead eyes to bite your parents face off, would you ask 'why?', or just run like fuck and hope the madness comes to an end? Exactly.
Our two main characters here are simple men with a simple mission; to get back to whatever family they may or may not have left. That's it. That's the plot. And as Romero knew full well, its all the plot you need. What makes THE DEAD stand head and shoulders above almost every zombie film of the past few decades is its dedication to intent. Like other fearless movies, THE ROAD and STAKELAND, this is a film about survival, plain and simple. We come to care for the characters through travelling the unending roads by their side. These guys are our guides through a perfectly realised vision of hell, and you cant help but root for these poor fuckers. Especially considering what they're up against.
How many times have you watched a zombie film and thought, 'That would be awesome!'? What made the original zombies far less of a threat was the fact that you could out-walk, out-skip and out-jump the smelly bastards with relative ease. Unlike those dopey sods in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, you wouldn't board yourself in a house. You'd find a car, jack some beer and head out into a new world of beautiful anarchy and freedom. That's what I'd do anyway, and I'm pretty sure most people who watch DAWN OF THE DEAD have dreamt of what it would be like to live in that world and, at least on occasion, thought to themselves, 'Fun!'.
Here's the trick though, the ace up THE DEAD'S blood soaked sleeve. Its not set in an urban environment. This outbreak takes place amidst the desolate beauty of Africa. There are no weapons with which to casually blow away the undead. There are no vehicles with which to ride off into the sunset, (and if your lucky enough to find one, then good luck finding fuel). And if you find yourself trapped in a small village, even with a handful of zombies, its not like you can just walk away. Where you going to walk to? The desert? With no food, no water and a whole world of wildlife waiting to eat your civilised ass for breakfast, I think you'd find your shit out of luck, and this whole apocalypse thing ain't so much fun after all. When your in the middle of nowhere, theres nowhere to run.
THE DEAD, amazingly, makes zombies scary again. Not just creepy, or disgusting, but genuinely threatening and authentically chilling. British directors, the Ford brothers, have pulled the zombie genre kicking and screaming, back into the realm of real fear. Finally these most beloved of monsters are no longer the subject of ridicule that we've seen them become in recent years. These aren't background threats or comedy material, these are the living fucking dead, endlessly hungry for your warm flesh and unrelenting in their singular pursuit.
When Howard and Jonathan Ford made the genius decision to set their epic in untamed Africa, they pulled off more than one fantastic manoeuvre. Not only is the landscape itself a character, but the zombies are among the best Ive ever seen onscreen. And theres often no special effects. Something in the image of the prominent, dark African features juxtaposed with the whitened, dead eyes, is just incredibly chilling. The closest approximation would be Lucio Fulci's zombies. THE DEAD features the most visually striking creations Ive seen in the sub genre since its initial inception. There are a few brilliantly designed make-up effects, but for the most part, the simple image of slowly shifting, once proud and now completely expressionless native Africans is mesmerising. Even when they go in for the kill, they make very little sound, and never look angry or animalistic in the way Romero's creations did. They simply look....dead. These bastards disturbed me, and I never thought such a thing was possible in such a sadly diluted sub-genre.
Adding to the relentless tension is the gorgeous cinematography. Africa is an incredibly cinematic land, and here Jon Ford, (and co-director Jonathan), take full advantage of the many wonders the continent has to offer. From endless deserts, to dense forestry and from small secluded villages to awe inspiring mountainous locales, the film is a visual wonder. And these guys are just as proficient at shooting the suspense as they are at capturing the untamed beauty of the setting. The palpable tension is ramped way up by some brilliant shots that bring to mind some of the greatest moments of cinema. One scene playes like the 'Hobbits under the fallen tree' scene from FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, only with an exhausted, starving survivor hiding from the undead, instead of Hobbits from a Ringwraith. Another startling sequence takes place in almost pitch darkness, as one character searches for the power. We've seen it done before, but rarely this effectively. You feel just as disoriented and on edge as the poor soul who just wants a fucking light on already. The film is chock full of these scenes, and every single zombie attack is brimming with fear, and often tragedy. The films best scene, wherein an infants life hangs in the balance, is hands down the finest and most emotional scene Ive come across in any zombie film, ever. The only scene that comes close is from episode 1 of THE WALKING DEAD when a character is faced with the task of re-killing his wife. This stuff is brilliant.
The leads are strong enough to pull all this tragedy off with no problems. Performances land firmly on the side of believable, and are often unassuming. It works very well in the context of the story. There is very little dialogue throughout the film, but you'll be so engrossed in the visual storytelling that you wont notice or care. The scenario, the characters plight, and the nightmarish imagery carry the whole show with ease. And while the Ford Bros may be men of few words, they apparently have plenty to say. THE DEAD follows Romero's lead in injecting socio-political matters into the films subtext without ever smashing you over the head with them. If you go looking for a political message, you'll find it. If you just want to experience a tense and frightening ride, you'll find that too.
On the downside, the films pace is sometimes a little misguided. The first half's relentless assault on the senses slows down perhaps a little too much in the early stages of the second half, as the journey begins to feel as endless to us as it would to the characters. Fortunately, this doesn't last long and your soon drawn back into the hellish events taking place. Another issue is that the almost traditional zombie finale, (a huge horde overrunning the survivors), is all but absent. It happens, but you really don't see it fully. Instead you see it from one characters unique perspective, and the scene is played for emotion resonance rather than viscera. It works, but its something of a shock to realise that the final bloodbath is left to your imagination, in a zombie film!
Don't let that put you off though. THE DEAD is as violent as all hell. Theres body parts, bite wounds, offal, exploding heads, and machete slicing by the dozens in here. And it all looks completely real. If there is any CG, I didn't notice it, and that's exactly how CG should be used in a Horror movie. The final scene may play on your emotions, but the rest of the film is up to its tits in blood and violence. Praise be!
The Ford Bros have created a truly brilliant zombie epic here. True to genre form, (when in the hands of capable artists),its budget is a blessing rather than a curse. Its zombies are seriously scary and its ascetic is one of total nihilism. Its bleak, frightening, realistic and unforgiving, and for my money, its the best film dealing with the subject in a serious manner since Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD. Its that good.
9.5 Machete Wounds out of 10