The Dead: As good as zombie movies get

The zombie apocalypse implies a global pandemic, but most of what I’ve seen so far has been good ol’ fashioned American zombies. The 28 Days franchise has English zombies, as does Shaun of the Dead, but since zombies don’t speak, the difference in accents is pretty much moot. World War Z provides an excellent international perspective, of course, but on the silver screen, the walking dead have been mostly Western.

That’s why The Dead (2010) looked so enticing (wait, can the dead be enticing? Oh, never mind…). The Dead promised a look at the apocalypse from a non-Western perspective—as if Africa isn’t war-torn enough, zombies overrun the continent—so I snatched it up.

Good call.

Co-directors Howard and Jon Ford craft an artful movie that’s tense, moody, and at times quite gross, but it’s also gorgeous at times and, best of all, thoughtful. The Ford Brothers take their time telling their story, which centers on a downed U.S. Air Force engineer who must find his way across hostile territory to a military base several hundred miles to the north.

Zombies populate the landscape, not so thick they move in hordes but thick enough that you wouldn’t want to be out of your car long enough to change a flat tire. The Fords’ zombies are slow, shuffling creatures that can’t seem to even shamble because they move so slow. Their yellow eyes somehow look both vacant and accusatory; they somehow both pierce and gaze.

Rob Freeman plays the engineer, Lt. Brian Murphy, and his eyes do more work in a single desperate shot as his plane is crashing than many actors do in an entire movie. Freeman has remarkably expressive eyes and facial expressions, allowing him to do his best work without speaking. He has the grizzled good looks of a man weathered by the apocalypse, so he looks like a survivor without looking like an action star. The understated performance keeps the film from ever teetering over the edge into B-movie action schlock. The Dead is A-list movie-making all the way.

The sun-parched African savannah stretches out in stunning beauty at times, which makes the zombie violence all the uglier. The Ford Brothers aren’t afraid of using the landscape to establish and reinforce mood, made all the more effective by the traditional-styled African music of Imran Ahmad’s haunting score.

One could easily watch The Dead as a metaphor for all the warfare that has rocked central Africa for decades. Corpses litter the landscape, and it’s hard at times to know whether it’s zombie carnage or genocide footage.

That’s all behind us now, one character says. We have a common enemy now. We fight that.

Despite the ever-present, unrelenting horde, Murphy encounters hope throughout his journey. It becomes apparent that the entire world is being overrun, and Murphy grows ever more dazed and despondent, but the movie ends on such a strong note of hope, hitting you up-side the head so hard you might want to wear a helmet.

I remember something Matt Mogk of the Zombie Research Society told me a couple months back. He wanted to see a zombie movie win best picture sometime in his lifetime. While The Dead doesn’t quite measure up to those standards, it’s an excellent step in the right direction. The Dead is the best the zombie apocalypse has looked in a long time.


3 replies »

  1. 28 Days Later is a good film but it’s not a zombie film. The things that are chasing people are infected with a disease, not reanimated dead people.

    The Dead sounds good though, thanks for highlighting it!

  2. I know some zombie purists exclude the 28 Days films from the zombie canon for the reason you point out, but as Matt Mogk says in his definitive book, “If the infected maniac lumbering down the street looks like a zombie, bites like a zombie, and is contagious like a zombie, then for all intents and purposes, it’s zombie enough for most. At this point, thanks to Boyle’s blockbuster innovation, living zombies are firmly ensconced in the zombie film subgenre.” (pg. 23) That’s good enough for me.

    Hope you enjoy The Dead. It was a fantastically crafted film!

  3. Chris, funny that you should have written on this movie, The Dead, since a good friend told me he thought it was the best zombie movie he has seen! He also thought the zombie apocalypse was a metaphor for wartorn Africa.

    In 28 Days, they are not truly dead, but I think it falls into a zombie genre. The rage virus has many similarities with a zombie apocalypse. I would throw it in there.

    In a very broad sense, from watching the Doomsday Preppers show on NatGeo, many of the preppers use the “zombie apocalypse” as a metaphor for any sort of cataclysmic event- enviromental, nuclear, economic, etc.

    p.s on a side note, I knew there would be right wing doomsday preppers, and most of them were…but I didn’t realize there would be a good number of left wing preppers too!! One difference, left wing preppers tended to be more hippie pacifist types and don’t believe in guns. The right wing preppers have a veritable armory around them!