Brothers Howard and Jon Ford don’t reinvent the zombie film, but their version focuses on a simple path for survival which, when transposed to the African desert, adds a visual richness and whole range of possibilities which aren’t reliant on small towns or big cities overtaken by the living dead.
Filmed in Ghana and Burkina Faso, The Dead follows the lone survivor from what was the last flight out of Africa carrying foreign nationals. After the plane crashes in the ocean, Lt. Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman) escapes from the beach and heads into the bush, where he forages through abandoned villages, gets a vehicle, and eventually encounters Sgt. Daniel Dembele (Prince David Oseia), an African soldier who abandoned his post in search of his wife and son. The two travel a treacherous path through the bush, avoiding the zombies and making careful pit stops before further circumstances threaten their lives.
That’s about all that really should be said about the Howards’ film, and certainly for its first half, The Dead is one of the most intense filmic experiences – not dissimilar to AMC’s The Walking Dead [M] (2010) series, but more concentrated by focusing on two men trying to stay alive while zombies are everywhere. Some of the film’s most intense scenes involve the pair’s navigating through country roads and fields using a beat up car, and there’s really for the filmmakers to explain what’s attacked the human populace. It’s enough that we know there’s been an infection; the dead have risen and are spreading the contagion to healthy humans; and the zombies are building a legion of slow-moving but exceptionally patient, crafty brethren who seem to enjoy maiming rather than claiming a victim for their own private consumption.
The film starts to lose its mojo once there’s a character split, and the meticulously built shocks and dramatic intensity gives way to winding scenes of Murphy wandering into the desert. With no new information given to the characters and audience, the film starts to lose momentum, and with the exception of an taut scene among weird rock outcroppings, the last half drags until the finale, where things sort of come to a quick close, leaving audiences with a closing shot that’s either a sign of the characters’ utter foolishness, or a door left open for a sequel.
Freeman is okay as the de facto hero, but he’s at least physically ideal for the role of a savvy mechanic trying to get back to America where his wife and daughter reside in supposed safety. Oseia’s stoic acting style works very well for the character, and suits the nature of a soldier trained to handle carnage and fulfill goals in a step-by-step order.
The African locations are superb, and The Dead is one of the most beautiful zombie films ever shot; Jon Ford also doubled as cinematographer, and his experience in commercial films ensures there’s not a badly lit shot in the picture. In the informative commentary track, both directors admit they had to restrain the urge and go bonkers with heavy coverage and ADD editing, so while The Dead has kinetic montages, they’re classically styled. The brothers also milked every stunning shade of red, orange, green and brown in their locations, and in HD the 35mm shot Dead is a jaw-dropper.
Also effective is Imram Ahmad ‘s Indo-industrial score, fusing South Asian vocals with African percussion, and breathy dead wails. There’s very little that’s melodic, making the pair’s country trek all the more terrifying. The film’s sound design is very lean but strategically dynamic, and the 5.1 mix is often quite enveloping.
Extras include a standard making-of doc showing the production on location, a deleted scene where a doctor attempts to answer Murphy’s question of what germinated the zombie plague, and a steady commentary track with the filmmaking brothers.
The commentary features a full range of production details, and the brothers are very candid about the script’s early development, its transposition to Africa, lamented unfilmed scenes due to time & budget issues, and the ups and downs of shooting in Africa where bribes and theft were a common problem
Certainly on a visual and aural level, The Dead adds a rich spectrum of new material, and while traditional fans may not like the dreamy, nihilistic finale (not to mention curt wrap-up), the film delivers in the gore department with plenty of severed heads and limbs -aspects that becoming increasingly uneasy when the waves of de-limbed walking dead echo news images from the Rwandan genocide.
An interview with composer Imran Ahamd is also available.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan