Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Dead

People who say slow zombies can't possibly be scary are the same type of folks who probably say baseball players aren't athletes, and I've run out patience with those people. Sure, you can walk around one zombie or a small group of them, but when they're everywhere and at the rate they multiply, they're threatening. Throw in the usual human element, and you got yourself a slow, painful apocalypse.

The Dead (2010), directed by the Ford Brothers, Howard J. and Jonathan, understands the unending, overwhelming dread shambling walking corpses can inspire, and by setting the film in the harsh, unforgiving desert of Africa, they highlight an often overlooked aspect of a zombie uprising: how do you survive not only the dead but also the environment? It's really hard to look for water and food when there are hordes of zombies looking to take a bite out of you. More importantly, The Dead accomplishes something even rarer in today's zombie cinema; it presents itself as a stark, serious, even grim thriller. Not even George Romero has done that since the original Night of the Living Dead.

The last military transport plane out of a zombie-infested Africa has crashed just off the coast. American military engineer Lt. Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman) emerges from the wreck and begins a trek through the dangerous countryside, encountering zombies and natural hazards as he tries to find a way to somewhere safe. Soon, he meets up Sgt. Daniel Dembele (Prince David Osei), whose village was wiped out, but his son managed to escape. Knowing the hazards of going it alone, they team up to navigate through this inhospitable land of the dead.

That's really it for plot. The film has an almost episodic feel as the two men go from encounter to encounter with the dead. Ultimately, there's nothing particularly new to the genre with the zombies themselves, and the characters, always focused on the immediacy of just surviving, never display much depth, even though they're the only two characters we spend any significant length of time with. And apart from a few lines about how all the American aid workers abandoned Africa when the zombies appeared, very little is done to give the movie any social or political meaning. The focus here is on action, suspense, and survival, so don't expect much the allegory or subtext that someone like Romero works in. You could argue it demonstrates how different men from separate cultures and backgrounds can work together in a crisis, but that's an obvious point and hardly original.

What the movie has going for it is that is makes zombies scary again. There are instances of ghouls leaping from around a dark corner to attack our heroes and several gory deaths, but real terror is generated by the zombies' constant, creeping presence. They are everywhere Brian and Daniel go; the idea of any place being safe is joke. Sure, you can easily get around one or a couple, but it doesn't take as long as you think for them to bunch up and trap you, especially when you're exhausted, thirsty, hungry, and in the middle of a vital task such as refueling a jeep, as these men usually are. They just keep coming and coming with no letup. They're aren't going to let you take a nap to catch you strength.

The violence and gore is nasty. People have chunks torn out of their necks and limbs, but it isn't brightly colorful in a splatter comic-book sort of way, like Dawn of the Dead. In one hard to watch scene, Brian encounters a wounded woman carrying her baby and limping from several zombies. A bite on her leg tells Brian she won't make it, and she pleads in some language he doesn't understand for him to take her baby, which he does. Then, she begs, crying, for him to shoot her. He doesn't want to, but the longer he hesitates, the closer the zombies get. This is a movie that takes zombies and the threat they represent seriously.

The Ford Brothers get good use out of their African locations: hot, desolate, a land as inhospitable as the zombies are dangerous. It's beautiful in a harsh, natural way. The characters are frequently covered in dirt, sand, blood, grime, and sweat; it's tangible. After watching this movie in a darkened room, you'll find daylight harsh and unforgiving.

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