THE DEAD (Review)

Undead feet shuffle across the sands of West Africa in THE DEAD, the refreshing yet old-school zombie survival drama shot in location in Africa by the Ford Brothers.

Stranded on the zombie-infested continent, American flight engineer Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman) forms an unexpected friendship with Sgt. Daniel Dembele (Prince David Oseia), an African soldier who has deserted his post in hopes of locating his son at a Northern military base. As they make their exhausting journey between remote villages and over the plains and deserts of West Africa, they must not only survive the flesh-hungry dead that stalk the wilds of but also Africa’s harsh, unforgiving environment. There are no shopping malls to hole up in. No pubs at which to grab a pint and wait for all of it to blow over. No convenience stores to raid in search of bottled water. Only the elements and the rapidly increasing dead.

The Dead, which releases February 14th, 2012 from Anchor Bay, has a lot to recommend itself. Shot on location in Africa, The Dead features a refreshing take on the zombie apocalypse scenario by locating the zombie nightmare in the beauty and desolation of Africa. With the proliferation of zombie films in America that tend towards the low-budget, we’ve seen enough of the urban zombie apocalypse played out on the screen. The Dead’s African locale grants the film a scope and novelty few other zombie films can boast as well as an interesting international and inter-racial dynamic between Murphy and Dembele that doesn’t overshadow the narrative but nevertheless complicates their partnership.

At the same time, The Dead drops its characters into situations that would be dangerous even without the undead. In the spirit of George A. Romero, the zombies in The Dead are not the primary threat. Make no mistake, they are an ever present danger lurking (sometimes too conveniently) just around the corner at every stop, but a well-armed and well-supplied group could easily outrun and outgun the slow, plodding gaggles of zombies that wander the African landscape. On the other hand, the chaos of the zombie uprising, following the stress and tension of a civil war, has left people isolated and alone, low on ammo and gasoline. In The Dead, our heroes are as likely to die from starvation, dehydration, and malaria as they are from the bite that silently sneaks up behind them.

The zombies in The Dead are also some of the purest zombies I’ve seen in a long time. They don’t run. They don’t growl or moan or scream. In fact, they don’t make any sound at all. Their faces are not contorted into agonized or menacing scowls. They’re blank-faced, dead-eyed, and insatiable. Taking its cues from the original Night of the Living Dead and the depiction of voodoo zombies from such films as I Walked with a Zombie, The Dead is a refreshing step back to a less-complicated yet somehow even more chilling representation of the zombie. But don’t worry, gore fans. There’s more than enough blood, flesh-feasting, and head trauma to be had when we encounter the dead.

The Dead, however, is not a perfect film. For one, the cinematography is choppy at times and the action choreography is blurry to the point of being nauseatingly confusing. Also, the film is such a slow burn in pacing that sometimes it doesn’t seem to be accelerating at all. The Dead takes itself very seriously, and the audience I watched it with during its Canadian premiere as part of Rue Morgue’s Cinemacabre screening would often laugh inappropriately because there are just not enough tension-release moments in the film itself. As a result of taking itself too seriously, The Dead tries to score some emotional high notes it doesn’t earn and, instead, delivers some melodramatically overblown scenes. In particular, there’s a moment of almost unbelievable coincidence near the end of the film that is done solely for melodrama’s sake yet it puts a hole through the plausibility of the picture.

Are these flaws serious? They’re certainly imperfections that prevent The Dead from being a great zombie movie, but The Dead is still a very good zombie movie. If you like zombie dramas (in contrast to zombie action films or comedies) then you’ll probably love The Dead’s story of survival in zombie-infested Africa. If, however, you’re looking for constant action and hilarious gore (ala Dead Alive or Dead Snow) then The Dead might not be your cup of tea.

For my money, The Dead is an engaging and bleak look at how a zombie outbreak might run its course in Africa. As the first zombie film shot and set in Africa, The Dead is highly recommended as much for its novelty as for its classic zombie movie elements that hearken back to the early films of George A. Romero.