Studio: Anchor Bay Films
Director: Howard J. Ford, Jon Ford
Writer: Howard J. Ford, Jon Ford
Producer: Howard J. Ford
Stars: Rob Freeman, Prince David Osei, David Dontoh, Ben Crowe, Glenn Salvage, Dan Morgan, Julia Scott-Russell, Laura Jane Stephens, John Dunton-Downer, Nelson E. Ward, Mark Chapman
A stranded U.S. Air Force engineer and a local soldier make their way through Africa during a devastating zombie outbreak.
No matter how closely someone’s personal tastes might fall in line with the generally accepted consensus, every dyed-in-the-wool film fan nonetheless has that one film or handful of films where his/her opinion swims against the collective tide. While not universally hailed as an all-time great in modern zombie cinema, “The Dead” has earned enough staunch support that my feeling of indifference seemingly counts me among the minority of those not swayed by its perceived charms. Its fans have deemed it exhilarating, original, and one of the best. But “The Dead” leaves me feeling like one of its reanimated corpses gnawing at a bone: hungry for something meatier to feast upon.
USAF engineer Brian Murphy finds himself the sole survivor of a failed evacuation flight out of Africa after a global epidemic has resurrected the dead. Local soldier Daniel Dembele has gone AWOL since the outbreak in an effort to locate his missing son. Together, the two military men team up for a zombie-killing trek across desolate African landscapes in search of safe passage and family reunions.
Thinking of “The Battery” (review here), another zombie film depicting the personal struggle of two men to outlast an apocalypse, what makes that movie intriguing are the personalities powering its plot. Time spent in their company digs into their backgrounds, explores their relationship, and creates emotional tethers to an audience invested in the outcome of their shared story. Here, Brian and Daniel are as flat as the deserts they traverse, and their motivations are nearly as barren.
Lead actor Rob Freeman physically looks the part of the American lieutenant, but his hollow performance casts Brian as a cardboard stiff. His primary objective is merely to escape, which is a goal any rational mind would have during an undead crisis. It doesn’t reveal anything unique about who Brian is as a person, and the lack of visible urgency assigned to his task equates its importance to remembering milk at the grocery store.
Prince David Osei puts in better work as Daniel, although his character is solely defined by the yearning to find his son, a fact he verbally reminds everyone of at regular intervals. Surely the script could have come up with something more interesting for Daniel to say other than “I must find my son” at every scene change. Neither he nor Brian are developed well enough to come across as truly intriguing.
Filmmaking duo the Ford Brothers do know their way around a camera, though. Some shots are pushed in too close and move too fast in the dark to read more than the gist of frenetic action, but the overall production value is very strong. “The Dead” lessens the redundancy of witnessing yet another shambling corpse for the umpteenth time in horror history by setting itself against the less-seen locations of African countryside. On the whole, it makes “The Dead” a visually compelling film to look at, even if what is taking place is something that has been shown countless times before.
Visual effects are also impressive. An opening scene featuring a zombie walking on a broken leg is particularly memorable. And white eyes contrasting against the dark skin of African zombies gives them a look that is distinct from the typical rotting flesh visage made familiar by American and UK-set films.
Much less impressive is the meat of the story. 15 minutes short of two hours is an overlong time for two men to sit, drive, and sleep around campfires during beefy stretches of silence punctuated by one more smashed zombie head.
Things take a potentially interesting turn when Brian is reluctantly forced to care for a swaddled infant given to him by a dying woman. Before the imagination can wonder how this will change his survival tactics, a refugee bus suddenly passes by and eager hands conveniently relieve Brian of his too brief responsibility. Elsewhere in the story, a poignant monologue from a survivors’ camp leader is practically pulled verbatim from Terry Alexander’s similar speech in “Day of the Dead.” “The Dead” seems to flirt with injecting meaningful commentary here and there before returning immediately to its straight-line path of Brian and Daniel’s journey from point A to point Z.
A striking visual style makes “The Dead” a little more than “just another zombie movie,” while its threadbare story and wooden characters keep it out of any category that includes the work of Romero, Fulci, Boyle, et al. I understand that its faithful fans disagree, although I do not see any quantifiable appeal that warrants repeated viewings of “The Dead” the way that those previously referenced films do.
Review Score: 50