I already know what you're thinking. Great, another zombie movie and we needed one of those like we need another dismembered torso crawling after our brains. Admittedly the zombie horror genre didn't need Undead but this black comedy / horror / sci-fi blend has a certain fresh energy that might just be as contagious as a pandemic of walking dead.
Undead is an Australian movie by the Spierig brothers, Michael and Peter that opened at Toronto's film festival in Sept 2003 to the historic Uptown Theatre's final show before it closed the door forever. Ironically there has been a strong movement in Toronto to resurrect the Uptown ever since. On the surface, Undead is just another zombie flick with a morbid sense of humour and uses all the conventions that we have come to expect from films staring lumbering cranial sensitive zombies. But you can easily get sucked into the film watching the Spierig brothers at play with their clever cinematography on what is obviously the budget of a pair of struggling artists. This zombie movie is what every zombie movie really wants to be; it lacks the over-slick element that made the Resident Evil films a bit unappetizing, and there seems to be no underlying commentary on society that hasn't already been covered by some of George Romero's work on films like Dawn of the Dead. Undead is having fun with itself and takes us along for the ride presenting us with a cast of over the top characters, each a caricature of people we might know in real life. The story is anchored by Rene played by Felicity Mason whose offbeat beauty is perfectly suited for this film. Renee had just been named queen in one of those small town beauty contests that seem ripe for satire by outsiders, providing notoriety she desperately wants to escape that follows her around town during the crisis. Renee is the only person we can truly relate to as she single-mindedly holds to the unenviable task of just trying to get the hell out of town. The film opens in the quaint Queensland town of Berkeley as we pass through a slew of disjointed characters and their individual situations we correctly suspect are about to collide. Then mysterious lights start to fall from the sky we suspect to be meteors. Soon the residence of Berkeley start turning into lumbering brain thirsty zombies, spreading their affliction with mortal wounds. The characters we've met wind up being a small group of survivors that includes a mismatched pair of local cops; Constable Sallyanne (Lisa Cunningham) and Harrison (Dirk Hunter). The mismatched cop duo make interesting straight man / funny man comedy involving the timid Sallyanne and the overbearing Harrison whose non-stop rambling with nervous energy is hilarious if not annoying, he even blames the zombie problem on hippies and their drugs. Harrison's faux macho is contrasted by the true heroism of a strange man named Marion, a village hermit everybody thinks is mad because of a run-in he claims to have had with extraterrestrials. Marion's intro scene where he saves Renee from some bloodthirsty locals is priceless. Slow motion accentuates his use of the tri-shotgun apparatus he uses with great efficiency to knock down walking corpses. Deep thumping bass highlights footfalls and spent cartridges hitting the ground. Throughout the introduction his face is hidden in the shadows of his wide brimmed hat reminiscent of many hero intro scenes in 40s serial films, or Harrison Ford's intro at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Marion looks like a hero who would be comfortable in a western film fighting outlaws instead of zombies and when he finally speaks he even sounds as if he's doing a Clint Eastwood impression. I can't help but wonder if the Marion character isn't named for John Wayne's real name, Marion Morrison. Marion's history gives him some insight on the situation in Berkeley today and the story begins to focus around the two main characters Renee and Marion.
I've given nothing away in the rather typical zombie story, however the plot is turned around only slightly by the introduction of an alien twist to the zombie menace. For an instant toward the end you may find yourself wondering what is going to happen next, rare indeed for this genre. But overall the film is a throwback to the kind of horror we all grew up seeing through the 70s and 80s. It's not a complete farce like a Scary Movie, the film plays largely straight with tongue firmly planted in cheek. What makes the film worth seeing is the morbidity of the dark humour; you're not liable to see the kind of cruelty perpetrated on the zombies of Undead in a mainstream film like Scary Movie. What happens to a certain corpse with a shovel stuck in his head trying to pass beneath an obstacle is one of the moments where you might ponder the sanity of the minds who not only came up with this stuff but meticulously put the effects together for film. Although the film lacks the polish of a big budget, the effects, sets and 16mm film give it a B movie tone that the Spierig brothers use to their advantage. It's difficult to call the movie a low budget affair now that some big budget Hollywood films shoot in digital or purposely use 16mm or even shaky 8mm cameras for an immediate, journalistic feel. This movie makes a great Halloween treat if you're open to yet another take on the zombie genre and are ready for a few laughs and some gross out humour.