Judge Patrick Naugle wonders if South African zombies pause for afternoon tea...
No rest. No hope. No life.
The recently deceased are returning to life and Africa is being torn apart in a war between the living and the living dead. When an evacuation flight filled with Americans crashes off the coast of Africa, only one survivor makes it out alive: Air Force Engineer Lieutenant Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman, Prozac Nation). Lt. Murphy is desperate to get home to his family and begins his trek across the jungles and deserts of Africa, relentlessly trying to stay one step ahead of the zombies and militants roaming the area. Murphy soon crosses paths with Sergeant Daniel Dembele (Prince David Osei), whose village has been decimated by the living dead, as he tirelessly searches for his son and wife. Reluctantly joining sides, the two men valiantly attempt a cross country journey together to reach their loved ones before succumbing to the plague of the undead.
I'd heard rumblings about The Dead for a good year or so and have been anxious to finally see what all the fuss is about. The zombie genre is my favorite horror subgenre, from George A. Romero's seminal 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead to the '80s splatter punk fun of Return of the Living Dead to the better-than-expected 2004 remake Dawn of the Dead. There is just something about the idea of the world screeching to a halt on the heels of reanimated corpses that brings out the 12 year old kid in me. Give me some half decayed bodies trying to eat the living and I'm a happy man.
The Dead takes the idea of zombies and moves it to a place that one doesn't usually associate with shuffling corpses: the African continent. This inspired idea by the Ford Brothers (with their feature film debut) makes of a fascinating setting; instead of sprawling, cavernous cities or rural farm houses viewers get lush fields and jungle sequences in the middle of a heat wave. It's almost jarring at first to see zombies roaming the same planes as giraffes and elephants. If nothing else, the movie gets points for trying something new.
Unfortunately, The Dead is a movie that offers a unique premise but standard execution; it's the usual zombie movie dressed up in fancy wrapping. The film deserves accolades for being something different even when it slows to a practical crawl. I'm a bit disappointed to admit that The Dead didn't end up being the movie I'd hoped it would be; instead of a thrilling zombie flick it's a buddy road movie with monsters, which sounds a lot better than it is. The Dead's zombies are zoned out corpses without any personality whatsoever. Some of the best zombie movies have memorable ghouls; Romero's Day of the Dead had the almost human-like 'Bub' and Dan O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead had the dripping 'Tarman', monsters that seemed to have real personality. In The Dead they are all just shambling targets waiting to be taken down by a gunshot or a machete.
The human actors all do okay with their roles, but again we encounter the same issue of each character being rather bland and one note. Actor Rob Freeman as the American pilot sort of sleepwalks through the film; he's a guy that is just trying to get from point A to point B, and little else. We don't learn much about him which in turns made me care little about his fate. Prince David Osei's character doesn't feel fleshed out (pun intended), which makes for a frustrating experience. Other characters come and go leaving not a trace of interest or impact. Without any strong leads to empathize with, the viewer is just waiting for the next zombie attack to perk up the proceedings.
Conversely, the effects work in the film is rather impressive; many zombies are given a rather spectacular death scene, including getting their face blasted off by a shotgun or their heads squished in like watermelons under falling anvils. In fact, one of the better aspects of the film is how high the production values appear; the make-up work is very good (even if the zombies look more like the monsters from the 1932 Bela Lugosi film White Zombie more than the ones from a Romero film) and the action—lots of gunfire—is well staged.
The production's history was fraught with peril and defeat, with one actor almost losing his life to a virus on the shoot. Because it was so tough to shoot, I really wanted to coddle this movie and make it my own…but I just couldn't find it in me to be that generous. Mostly The Dead lacks the fun that a film dealing with zombies should possess. I'm not saying a zombie movie needs to be balls-to-the-wall hysterical, but an element of humor and goofiness sometimes goes a long way for repeat value. The Dead is so deathly serious about its subject that it can start to feel like you're watching a documentary about how to travel to Africa without being eaten by the undead. I liked the fact it tried to do something different with its subject matter, but in the end The Dead just feels slightly…well, lifeless.
The Dead is presented in 1.78:1/1080p high definition widescreen. Anchor Bay's work on this transfer is fine if uninspired; more likely due to the film's budget and production, the transfer often looks uneven. Some scenes pop, especially during brightly lit daytime scenes on the African plains. Other scenes—such as an underwater sequence—look muddled and ugly. While this transfer is surely a step up from DVD, it's not great. The soundtrack is presented in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround in English. This mix does a good job of spreading the effects, dialogue and music over the front and rear speakers, but never becomes anything special; the ambient noises and music get the biggest boost here. Also included on this disc are English and Spanish subtitles.
Extra features on this edition of The Dead include an audio commentary by writer/producer/director Howard J. Ford and writer/DP/co-director Jon Ford discussing their many trials and tribulations to bring this story to the screen, a short EPK featurette with behind-the-scenes material, and about two minutes worth of deleted scenes.
The Dead is worth a passing glance but hardcore zombie fans may be disappointed.
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