I’ve heard the collective groans from many who have achieved zombie oversaturation. For some reason the renaissance of the zombie subgenre which began during the early 2000’s continues unabated. One just has to look at the huge popularity of Robert Kirkman’s long-running horror comic book The Walking Dead right up to the even more popular tv adaptation of the comic book which now enters it’s 3rd season on AMC TV. Yet, not everything zombie-related in entertainment could be considered scary or even entertaining. If one looks at the dozens of direct-to-video which seems to come out month in and month out that barely rises above amateur production and execution one does have to feel that the subgenre should just die and go away. Then something like The Dead by the British sibling filmmakers The Ford Brothers comes along and breathes some fresh blood into the scene.
An indie film shot pretty much in northwest Africa (Burkina Faso and Ghana), The Deadis a throwback to the classic Romero zombie films before the new millennium and, even moreso, the Italian zombie films of Lucio Fulci with emphasis on Zombie. The Ford Brothers pretty much shot the film in some of the worst conditions a film crew could find itself in. It doesn’t matter whether it was the baking mid-day heat in the open plains and desert right up to the very real armed conflict which continues in the region to this very day. These two British siblings definitely took some guerilla filmmaking lessons from their hero Romero in how to stretch their tiny budget and still come out with a very good production.
The Deadis a pretty straightforward zombie film and acts more like a road film than your typical zombie story which tend to focus heavily on the siege aspect of the genre. We don’t get sieges in this film. The openness of the African plains and desert made for an interesting change of pace to the typical urban and/or countryside locales past zombie films ended up using. The film also spent so much of it’s running time in broad daylight which also made it stand out from it’s zombie film brethren which used night time as a prop to create dread and mounting terror. The Ford Brothers were able to use that very brutal heat and searing African midday sun to give the film a beautiful look but also one that highlighted it’s apocalyptic and hopeless situation. The light showed zombies shambling along from every direction, slow as they may be, in that steady, silent pace that was as inevitable as Death itself.
The story of the film is quite bare bones with the opening sequences pretty much introducing the two storylines that would intersect very early and combine to become one. There’s the lone survivor of a military evacuation flight out of the area and back to America (at least Europe) in Lt. Brian Murphy (played by Rob Freeman) whose role as a flight engineer in the doomed flight gives him the necessary technical skills to fix an abandoned vehicle he finds, but who is not what one would call a hardened soldier unlike Sgt. Daniel Dembele (played Ghana actor by Prince David Oseia) whose role as a soldier gives him the skills to protect Murphy. The two become traveling companions who must traverse the post-apocalyptic West African landscape that always have zombies, silent and sure slowly and patiently finding their way to the two no matter how fast and far they go.
Murphy wants to get back to his wife and daughter back in the States though he doesn’t know if they’re still alive or not. Daniel wants to find his son who was rescued by soldiers in the beginning of the film as their home village succumb to an attack of the dead. These similar goals become the very thing which helps the two bond together despite their cultural and ideological differences.
The film doesn’t go too heavy with the themes and ideas of Africa and zombies, but they’re there and the Ford Brothers don’t try to avoid them either. Throughout the film one could see that the film could easily be a metaphor for the birthplace of mankind also becoming the beginning of its end. There’s also the shadow of the crimes of Western colonialism and interference in a land whose people have been exploited and used like chess pieces on the grand world stage. Like some of the best zombie films, The Deaduses the apocalyptic setting and the danger of the zombies as a way to explore serious themes and ideas but do so without being too obvious or heavy-handed. In fact, the Ford Brothers actually were quite subtle with their handling of these ideas throughout the film. This made for a much more streamlined story, but also kept the film from heading into epic territory.
Freeman spends almost the whole time on the screen which stretched his performance somewhat. At times his dialogue came out natural and then on another sequence he would come off stilted. It’s not surprise that some of the best scenes Freeman’s Murphy had was when in the presence of Oseia’s Sgt. Daniel Dembele. Hiss presence on screen almost overshadows Freeman at times and one could almost wonder how much the better the film would’ve been if it was just Daniel searching for his son and no Murphy character to distract things. Oseia’s performance becomes the moral center of the film and as the story unfolded one felt like rooting for the man to find his son even though the odds on him succeeding rises with each passing minute.
The Dead is not a perfect film and one could say that it’s very straightforward nature becomes too generic and evident at certain times during the film. Yet, the rough and raw way the Ford Brothers wrote and shot the film with some very good performances from it’s cast made up for any shortcomings the film had. Even the gore effects wasn’t hampered by the minuscule budget. This film should satisfy gorehounds and story aficionados both. That’s something that most indie zombie films can’t boast about that this film can. The film’s ending leaves things somewhat open for a sequel (something the brothers are open to exploring as a future project) with the final shot evoking a “Lone Wolf and Cub” vibe before the fade to black.
The Ford Brothers’ The Dead saw a very limited release in 2010 and 2011 but has now seen a wide DVD/Blu-Ray release for 2012. For some it would be a buy and a keeper, but at the very least it deserves a rental to see what all the hoopla was about.