by Jason Coffman
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After seeing so many low-budget stabs at zombie movies, it’s easy for horror fans to get weary of the formula. Cheap makeup, cheap blood or— infinitely worse— CGI blood, bad actors holed up in a room. Probably a lot of running and some weak humor. The independent horror landscape is littered with this sort of thing, and it’s all too easy to get tricked into watching yet another cheapo zombie movie. So it is with no little sense of relief that the horror fan finds a film like The Ford Brothers’ The Dead, that takes itself seriously and treats the audience and its subject with respect, recalling the great zombie films of the past while offering something decidedly new.
Lt. Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman) is in the last evacuation plane out of West Africa when it goes down just off the coast. He makes it back to land, the sole survivor of the crash. Murphy is forced to find his way on foot to safety in the midst of a zombie epidemic ravaging the continent. He meets up with Sgt. Daniel Dembele (Prince David Oseia), an AWOL African soldier searching for his son. The men form an uneasy alliance and work their way north, where there is supposedly a safe zone set up by the American military where Dembele’s son has been taken.
From this point, The Dead has a very episodic feel. The two men make their way between villages and abandoned outposts, finding people dealing with the situation different manners. The opening slaughter of Dembele’s village is harrowing, the film’s super sharp digital video nicely highlighting the queasily effective practical effects. The African landscape offers some stunning views and some serious tension. In one particularly effective sequence, high grasses grow near a truck that Murphy attempts to start. Zombies could be lurking anywhere— this is a film where the sunlight gives no respite. In fact, when characters kick open the door of a seemingly empty shack, the pitch-black shadows are just as threatening as they would be in the middle of the night.
The zombies in The Dead are reminiscent of Romero’s model: Mostly slow, “all messed up,” and hungry for flesh. Again, the film’s practical effects and makeup are spectacular, and the images of the zombies staggering through the desert terrain are often chilling. The Ford Brothers have created a convincing zombie apocalypse on a budget, and dropped the audience right in the middle of it with the film’s two lead characters. Despite the widescreen vistas, The Dead often has a claustrophobic feeling, mostly due to keeping the human interaction and dialogue between its two lead characters.
As technically excellent as The Dead is, there is one misstep that detracts somewhat from its effectiveness. The viewer’s emotional investment in the film is entirely dependent on the leads, and while Prince David Oseia gives a great performance as Dembele, the character of Murphy is less convincing. Rob Freeman is left to carry virtually the entire film, but Murphy is unfortunately just not a very interesting character. Dembele’s search for his son is a much more compelling story, and though attempts are made to show how Murphy changes from looking out for himself to taking chances to help others, there is still not much for the audience to sympathize with in Murphy’s arc.
Despite this issue, there is much to recommend The Dead to the serious horror fan. Gorgeous cinematography, amazing locations, great practical effects, and plenty of daylight scares and tension all combine to make The Dead stand out in the independent horror crowd. It’s films like this that make slogging through the wasteland of direct-to-disc horrors worthwhile. The Dead is a great take on well-worn material, and certainly worth seeking out.
Anchor Bay releases The Dead on Blu-ray and DVD on 14 February 2012. Special features include a “behind the scenes” featurette and a deleted scene.
Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He writes reviews for Film Monthly and is a regular contributor to Fine Print Magazine (www.fineprintmag.net).
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