The zombie genre has become the equivalent of a malfunctioning septic tank in recent years with a lot of crap floating around. However, I am pleased to say that is not the case with The Dead, a film that is perhaps the closest throwback to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. High praise, I know but its subtle style, human emotions, and generally pervasive creepy atmosphere warrant its comparison to that most iconic of all zombie films.
The film is set in Western Africa during a time of civil war between rival factions as a zombie plague hits. An airplane sent to evacuate missionaries crashes off the coast leaving Air Force Engineer Lt. Brian Murphy (Freeman) as the lone survivor. Murphy narrowly escapes a group of zombies after swimming a shore, heading inland to find help. All he finds is deserted villages with dead bodies all about. He manages to get a beat-up old truck running and sets off without any clear idea where to go.
His path leads him into a chance encounter with Sgt Daniel Dembele (Oseia), a member of one of the local armies who went AWOl so he could return to his village to find his son, only to find his fellow villagers torn apart by the zombies but not before learning his son was rescued by other troops. Now these two men with nothing in common other than the will to survive and the desire to return to their families, must navigate the harsh terrain as they journey through a land filled with the walking dead.
The Zombies in The Dead are the slow moving, George Romero type. They shuffle along with expressionless, dead-eyed faces and consequently are more terrifying than the fast-moving zombies of recent films because they actually seem dead. The film was shot in Africa and makes for a far different setting that the usual cities of most zombie films. Director’s Howard and Jonathon Ford make full uses of the spectacular landscapes. Beautiful wide-open bush lands by day seem to close in on the two men by night to create a claustrophobic feeling where zombies never seem to be far away. The terror is magnified during their night travels. Without any ambient light from cities, the only light they have is the headlights of their truck which get engulfed by the darkness. When you think they are safe they suddenly have to swerve to avoid a zombie shuffling past in the night.
There’s no CGI effects in The Dead and none are needed thanks to the brilliant make-up of Max Van De Banks. Their pallid, rotting flesh, contracted pupils, and gruesome wounds actually make these zombies look like walking corpses and not actors in make-up. Some push themselves along on their arm, dragging gnawed off limbs, others limp along with bones protruding out of their legs. The gore isn’t over the top, being somewhere between Ronero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead but it shivers with realism. There’s perhaps an over abundance of headshot kills but the two men have limited weapons as their disposal.
There’s a humanistic quality to The Dead which most modern films lack and this is what sets Romero’s films apart from most others. The opening scene as local soldiers fight the zombies in a small village was reminiscent of the SWAT raid in the opening of Dawn of the Dead. Villagers still try to embrace their dead family members, oblivious to the danger they present. The two men are solely driven by their need to reconnect with their own families.
The film does bog down somewhat in the middle. The wide-open vistas don’t provide much of an opportunity to change up the action. The only diversion is a brief respite in a small village that has a small contingent of soldiers for protection. The ending is left somewhat flat but that can’t dampen what is one of the most enjoyable zombie films to come along in many years.
Audio Commentary with Howard and John Ford
Unearthing The Dead: Behind the Scenes (5:12) Very short behinds the scenes featurette. Nothing much to bite into (pun intended)
Deleted Scene (1:41) Short scene where Murphy meets another westerner…a doctor who stayed behind in the village guarded by the local troops.
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