Oh no, not another cheap, poorly-made zombie apocalypse movie. Gimme a break. But wait… this one looks… different. This one looks… good. Having recently endured the rigours of Luke Goss in the appalling and unreviewable ‘Zombie Undead’ I’m starting to be a bit wary of films with the ‘Z’ word in the title or anything promising hordes of ‘the undead’ and ultimately delivering about six startled-looking extras with some red on them. If any horror genre has reached saturation point it’s the zombie movie and it takes something special - a ‘Walking Dead’ or ‘Shaun of the Dead’ for example - to reanimate my interest in movies about the recently-deceased. Last year’s ‘The Horde’ depicted a zombie apocalypse from a French perspective and now ‘The Dead’, a striking new movie by the Ford Brothers, takes us even further afield to the parched plains and deserts of Africa, as the world grinds to a halt in a landscape which already looks pretty apocalyptic to most soft Westerners.
An evacuation flight out of a war-torn, troubled Africa crashes off the coast and American Air Force Engineer Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman) emerges as the only survivor in a land where the dead have risen and are savagely attacking and devouring the living. Desperate to find a way back home Freeman meets up with Daniel (Prince David Osei) whose village has been decimated, his wife slaughtered and his young son missing. The two join forces, their cultural differences acknowledged but set aside as they struggle to cross a hostile, infested terrain in search of sanctuary and, they hope, an eventual reunion with their families.
The Ford Brothers have worked a minor miracle here with what can only have been the tiniest of budgets. Perfunctory, derivative storyline notwithstanding, ‘The Dead’ in many ways takes the zombie movie back to its roots. Those who rail against the super-fast, athletic undead of recent vintage won’t be disappointed with the slow, eerily-shuffling and relentless zombies here or the graphic and stomach-troubling sequences where they tear and rend at their victims before happily munching on slices of bloody flesh. Yum. Elsewhere zombies are dispatched with an almost documentary matter-of-factness; one has its face blown right off, others are decapitated and dismembered, many more shot through the head. What’s really most impressive though is the absolute and implacable constant presence of the zombies; we see them here and there in large numbers but the film deftly gives the impression that, even in the tractless wastes of the African desert there’s nowhere to hide, no place to stop and rest - within moments a zombie or two will just appear. One particular scene - Murphy hides high up in a tree during the night and in the darkness a zombie shuffles below him, mindlessly unaware of his presence - is the stuff of real zombie nightmares.
Clearly conscious of their low budget, the Ford Brothers have gone to great pains to make the greatest use of the available African vistas, with great wide shots of dusty plains and arid deserts contrasting starkly with the more typical modern urban environments of your standard zombie slasher. The paucity of dialogue - there’s a good twenty or so minutes where no-one talks at all - adds to the film’s sense of other-worldiness, a sense already stunningly-realised purely by virtue of its Dark Continent setting. It’s a bleak and relentless experience - perhaps not as desperately pessimistic as ‘The Mist’ - but there’s precious little light and shade here and, at the end, not much hope for the future when Murphy discovers that what he’d hoped might just be a localised outbreak has actually spread a whole lot further.
‘The Dead’ is really a bit of a gem in a sub-genre much abused in the last few years. Its catchpenny title doesn’t do it much justice and its lurid cover suggests something much less evocative than the haunting and memorable film which the Ford Brothers, clearly talents to keep an eye on, have created. Highly recommended.
Special features: 16 minutes worth of behind-the-scenes stuff, one deleted scene and cast and crew interviews.