The Dead have risen from their graves again … and, as usual, they’re mighty hungry!
To me, Brian Murphy will always be the guy who played the hangdog, long-suffering husband to the great Yootha Joyce in the classic British sitcoms Man About The House and its even more successful spin-off George & Mildred, but here in the arid, blood-soaked deserts of a hellish West African wasteland, surrounded by shambling, flesh-eating ghouls, and played by Rob Freeman, he is a shell-shocked American army-engineer-turned-reluctant-zombie-basher who is not only stranded in the middle of a veritable apocalypse of the undead but he’s on the wrong side of the world, with limited supplies and only a determined local soldier as a companion.
We’ve all seen a gazillion gore-guzzling zombie films. I know I have. And there is a certain amount of yawn, seen it all before about any new release of a dead-header. Everyone seems to want to envisage the scenario of society devouring itself. They want to show bullets blowing craniums apart, and grim flesh-chomping last stands, and if they aren’t gnawing on the bones of the greats, then they are unashamedly remaking them. But there was the promise of something special about this one, something that was, at once, referential to the acknowledged gems of the form and brave enough to tackle a few issues in-between the mayhem and to strike out across new ground. Very literally new ground in this case. Amidst a plethora of modern-day revisionist corpse-grinders, with TV’s superb The Walking Dead taking the lead with an intensely character-driven vengeance – the British-born Ford Brothers, Howard and Jonathan (who both co-wrote and directed the film together), do a Burke and Hare job on the genre, rifling through the freshly turned soil of its fetid grave and hauling its still bloody carcass out into the bloated sun. But, looking beyond the unusual location, The Dead then shoots itself in the foot and hobbles those once so-individual traits until the film limps to an understandable, yet still rather redundant climax... and becomes just another zombie film at the end of the day.
George Romero is the obvious reference point, but the Ford Brothers doff their cap to 28 Days Later, I Am Legend and, rather nicely, Zombie Flesheaters and the risibly titled, but gloriously nasty Dawn of the Mummy. With the latter two, there is something physically connected between these glassy-eyed shamblers with those of Fulci’s, even down to the possible taint of voodoo in the bloody pot, and the confused chaos of the mass attacks on squalid villages, with garishly dressed extras running in every direction only to be pounced-on and chewed-up evoking the rampage seen in Frank Agrama’s curiously grisly Egyptian variation from 1981. On a giddily lighter note, Fulci-fans may also get a little chuckle out of the radio transmission made at the end, as well.
A demonic plague has ravaged through parts of Western Africa, and the dead are returning to attack the living. We know the basic rules and this movie isn’t going to deviate from them in the least. If the ghouls bite you and don’t devour you, then you will return as one of them. Only a bullet through the head, or a blow that destroys the brain will put the suckers down for good. The last Western evacuation flight has lifted off, but there is trouble onboard. Not only is there a zombie amongst the refugees doing what zombies do best, but the plane was forced to leave the ground in such a hurry that it wasn’t fully readied for take-off. Leaking fuel and suffering from engine-failure, the aircraft plunges into the sea just off the coast. The terrified survivors crawl from the surf, but before they can gather their wits, they are converged upon by ravenous zombies out beachcombing. Only Murphy is able to get away in one piece. At the same time, Sgt. Daniel Dembele (played with stoic resilience and dignity by Prince David Oseia) has left his unit and returned to the wreckage of his village to find his wife and son. Bodies are everywhere and his home is awash with bloody remains. However, he learns that his son was whisked away to the supposed safety of a military outpost far to the north, and so he begins the long and dangerous trek to find him.
Both Murphy and Dembele soon cross paths and decide that their best chances lie in sticking together against the tide of the undead. The engineer wants to find an airfield in the hopes of getting out of the country, and the soldier just wants to be reunited with what’s left of his family and, in a dilapidated and rusted wreck of a car they travel across the corpse-strewn country, battling unending hordes of zombies night and day every step of the way. For both men, the trip will become a terrifying odyssey of death and despair in a land from which all hope seems to have fled.
Much has been said, especially in the American critical response to the film, about the use of the African landscape, and I can only reiterate how it’s striking combination of bleak desolation and primal beauty, shot through with a distinctive blood-red and ochre ambience, becomes a central character in the story. Unlike the mall in Romero’s uber-classic Dawn of the Dead, to whom the spiritual being of this film owes its most emphatically resonant debt, which becomes a temple to Man’s consumerist greed and lunacy, the setting is just an ever-present, coldly impassive and sombre observer to the atrocities that are being wrought across it. The mall would, one day, collapse upon itself long after the last zombie had rotted to dust, but this epic landscape will live on for millennia, virtually unchanged and uncaring as the population upon its sun-baked surface shambles pitifully into the holocaust. Thus, the very setting, itself, becomes one of the movie’s greatest assets, with the menace not so much springing out of the shadows, but omnipresent across the horizon.
The zombies, themselves, are another tremendous asset.
Having them being predominantly comprised of the indigenous population means that they do look distinctive from the usual smorgasbord of races and cultures. Their emaciated forms could, at a stretch be taken as a metaphor for the famine-stricken people of the African plains, of course. Each and every zombie extra, even those in the distance, has a very convincing “dead” attitude. Their rictus-shuffle is very good, and you’ve just got to admire the very first one that we see in the flash-forward prologue sequence that is struggling to walk on a clearly broken leg, the bone jutting from the flesh and the limb, at a squirm-inducing angle, working with an audibly horrid crack. Great makeup effect for this too. In fact, the makeup from Max Van De Banks, across the board, is highly impressive. One of the most subtle yet striking things about the ghouls is that their eyes turn to an almost glittering translucency, which makes them stand out like milky marbles. Perhaps, just perhaps, this reminds us of the wonderful classic zombie look of Darby Jones, who we saw acting as the disconcerting plantation-guide in Val Lewton’s awesome I Walked With A Zombie (1943) and then as another ghoul in the Bela Lugosi horror-comedy Zombies on Broadway.
And the makers don’t skimp on the gore either. We have heads erupting from high-velocity rounds, limbs getting hacked off with machetes (another strong image that can’t help reminding us of some of the terrible incidents that have taken place in Africa), some fine squishing of bodies on the bonnet and beneath the wheels of the car as we roll across the country, and rotting teeth dig deep into vulnerable, warm flesh at every convenient moment. This stops some way short of the full disembowelling that Romero and his enthusiastic Italian counterparts so enjoyed doling-out, but there are lots of meaty chunks torn away from writhing bodies, nevertheless. Practical prosthetic FX go hand-in-decomposing-hand with some CG embellishment here and there, though for the most part the digital trickery is consigned to the odd welter of grue to add immediate severity to some cranial explosions. Real amputees lend a grisly authenticity to the look of some of these ambling cadavers.
Excellent cinematography, undertaken by Jonathan Ford, himself, makes the film a stark and sweat-caked delight of dusty plains, weird rock formations, desiccated foliage and wizened trees, and parched battlefields. Lensed in dangerous regions of Ghana and Burkina Faso, the makers were able to aid the impoverished and starving locals by employing them as zombies – something that they were very keen to take part in as it meant money and food. Thus, you cannot praise the authenticity of the film at all. In a rather more typical move, Imran Ahmad’s score is thickly ambient and tonal, focussing on the parched vastness of the desperate isolation that Murphy feels. It suits the mood, but it is purely generic and could, possibly, have done with a bit more local colour. Plus, there is a tangible sense of distance being covered, which makes a refreshing change from the one-stop-shop location of most zombie yarns.
It is great to discover that the film doesn’t go overboard on the moral sermons either. Political metaphors could well have bogged it down, especially when we see trucks of armed militia cruising through the brush. But these guys appear to have the interests of all at heart. One remark is made that enemies must now put aside their differences and unite to face the common threat of the living dead. These guys will not waste time or sympathy on those who are beyond aid, though. However, the touchy subject of the American intervention there is rather too easily glossed-over. I mean we have absolutely no idea what Murphy and his mob were doing there in the first place. Dembele makes a veiled reference to “mercenaries” but this is much too vague to mean anything at all. “I’m just an engineer,” says the American, and we have to make do with that. To be honest, it does smack of formulaic convenience to have the main character an American soldier, and there will be a few raised eyebrows when we see him with his face covered and bedecked in Arab-like Bedouin robes, and sporting an AK-47. Happily, the screenplay doesn’t try to explain the dead coming back to life. But then, when you think about it, there really aren’t that many zombie films that do. Once more, Fulci-fans can listen out for a nice little homage to Zombie Flesheaters when we hear the tale of a villager seen “walking in the fields at night … only they’d been killed the day before,” and even when Dembele impassively informs the awakening Murphy that his “fever’s broken. We can go now,” it sounds like a dead-on riff for Richard Johnson’s now classic line, “The boat can leave now. Tell the crew.”
Whilst Oseia, who is known as the Ghanian Tom Cruise, has plenty of gruff charisma and shanty-town nobility, striding across the terrain and looking tough and indomitable in his crisp fatigues, buffed boots and bright red beret, Freeman lacks any sort of empathy as Murphy. He’s not a great actor by any stretch of the imagination, but then he’s not a bad one either, so we cannot lay the blame for his character’s complete dearth of personality entirely at his feet. He handles some desperate moments with gall and he certainly doesn’t play-up the Rambo-like aspects of his exhausted survivor, but the script leaves him as a one-note cipher for most of the time and Freeman just isn’t up to the task of making Murphy come alive. We just don’t care enough about him. Despite the terrible situation that he and Dembele are in, there are ample opportunities for humanistic exchanges that would delicately peel back the brusque layers of this symbolically strange man in a strange land. He’s trying hard to be the genre’s Man With No Name, but tainted with new school realism … and failing. Barring some rather clumsy hallucinations of returning home to his family – which is meant to be in the States, but has very obviously been filmed on an English suburban estate – we learn next to nothing about Murphy, the man. Murphy, the army engineer, gets to tinker with lots of things though. You get the impression that if the dead-heads left him alone for long enough, he could probably build an entire plane from scratch, A-Team-style. Personally speaking, I would have loved to see how the other Brian Murphy, from George & Mildred would have handled it!
So the lack of screenplay means that the film has little to do other than descend into a series of endlessly repetitive encounters. The dead are everywhere, which is a great and constant threat that shouldn’t be underestimated, indeed they come to be an integral part of the frame, but there is no variance in the construction of the set-pieces they create. We have plenty of “just shoot it in the head, man!” moments and the zombies get horribly up close and personal very frequently, but the Fords try to wring supreme suspense out their shambling, slow-moving gait every time they show up. Murphy is always wrestling with some prop, usually the car’s engine or its wheels, or a crate of weaponry, as the ghouls appear in the background and then amble ever-closer whilst he struggles against the clock. But instead of this remaining a genuinely eerie and unnerving device, as it starts out being, especially during the frantic beach sequence, it becomes almost comical. You can imagine another version of this in which Murphy has time to put the kettle on, have a wash and a shave, watch an episode of The Walking Dead and perhaps book a holiday before those groping hands and hungry mouths finally reach him.
Even with such sparse dialogue, the film manages to botch a couple of emotional moments. When our weary travellers find themselves at a remote and fortified village, Dembele tells the veritable chief (played by David Dontoh) that he is looking for his son. He then tells him this again as they sit beside a campfire, pondering the meaning of the apocalypse. The chief then asks Dembele if he has any family! Huh? He’s been going on about his son since you met him – haven’t you been listening? The thing is, I know what the Fords are trying to do with the moment, but it has been so clumsily handled that it takes you right out of the film. They further damage this highly personal quest with a later and fatal development that reduces what slight compassion we had for it in the first place to absolutely zero. This shows a lack of proper structure and a plotting gamble that simply doesn’t pay off. A climactic meeting that should have carried massive emotional wallop is stupidly thrown to the wind simply by having the wrong man – and played by an actor who has no heartfelt gravitas whatsoever – take the place of the one who should have been there. As a result of this, we don’t have any feelings about this important moment at all, which then has the effect of destroying much of the investment we have had in the rest of the story leading up to it. A bad move.
And, worse yet, there is another sequence that totally points up the lack of conviction on the part of the makers, and the half-hearted attempt they make to wring poignancy from the situation.
Thus, you will find that the next paragraph is a Spoiler Zone that reveals the ineptitude of the screenplay. Feel free to skip over it! At one point, Murphy stumbles into the path of a wounded woman fleeing from the converging zombies, who implores him to take her baby with him to escape their clutches. With great reluctance, Murphy does so and hightails into the scrubland after ending her misery. So now he’s got a baby. How’s he going to feed it and protect it? This is a serious twist on things. But then, in the very next scene, which takes place presumably just around the corner, a lorry full of fugitives trundles by and, without any words being exchanged, they take the babe from him and drive on. What? No information exchanged? No advice or directions given? They don’t even ask him if he wants to join them. They just take the baby and go, thus ending this critical predicament for him in one stultifying “phew, thank God for that,” coincidence. I’ve got to say that this is a pathetic cop-out of such a moral conundrum. The Fords hit upon an acute dilemma for their hero, and one that really makes you suddenly sit up and take notice, but then they have second thoughts and just take it out of his and our hands less than a moment later. Quite simply, that is big, bad blunder. And from this point onwards, the film is utterly unable to regain its once sure footing. We’ve lost confidence in the main character and in the people steering the ship. Folks, even the most threadbare budgeted and amateur dross would be at-pains to avoid such a fundamental pitfall as this. So it beggars belief that the Fords, who have apparently had this movie planned for years, should tumble headlong into it.
There is no disputing the reverence for the horror genre, and the zombie film in particular, that the Fords have. Their determination, after years of thankless and unsatisfying toil, to make their own zombie movie, since first viewing 1978’s Dawn of the Dead and drooling at the mesmerising poster-art for Zombie Flesheaters is (dark)heart-warming. They didn’t want to saturate the screen with fast-running ghouls and copious CG, they wanted things to resurrect the Romero/Fulci ethics. Which is why I find myself both enamoured with and so frustrated by what they finally achieved. On the one hand, this is admirable filmmaking from a production that had everything stacked against it – disease, violence, robbery, corruption and a hostile environment – but, on the other hand, there is little excitement, fear or suspense once we’ve hit the road, because the cycle of hit-and-run just plods on and on, and we have little or no affection for the characters or their plight. I basically found myself yearning to love this film very much more than I actually did.
Overall,The Dead has plenty of evocative atmosphere and a suitably grim and grungy tone. There is definite talent on show with how the Ford Brothers have executed such a generic story with style but, ultimately, the shortcomings of the writing and the surprising lack of momentum trip up what was initially a great scenario. Credit, of course, goes to the awesome geographical shift from the usual and overly-familiar towns and cities, and for addressing, at least visually, the civil crisis that afflicts certain parts of Africa, and for letting rip with the gore. I think that if the film begins to plod and the tension bleed-out, we can put this down to the raw satisfaction that the makers felt at being to get this thing off the ground with far more realism than a whole host of other zombie flicks. They were out of their comfort-zone and had no cosy studio to protect them, and this on-the-hoof style of semi-guerrilla filming can certainly add to the searing mood of ever-present danger. Provided they get a tighter grip on their writing and learn to provide a stronger narrative for the characters and the audience to bite into, then the brothers could become a force to be reckoned with.
The Dead is a good, though stupidly flawed and repetitive entry in the never-ending annals of the zombie gut-muncher. Frustratingly, it is full of promise, but eventually hamstrung by glaring narrative errors that, for a story so long in construction, are quite unforgivable. This said, fans of the form should still find enough good stuff in here to view the film as being fresh meat within what you have to agree is an, otherwise, very stale and overcrowded genre.
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