Review first appeared in Sight & Sound, November 2011
Synopsis: A wartorn West African state suffers a fast-spreading zombie outbreak. After the last US evacuation plane crashes into the sea, survivor Flight Engineer Lieutenant Brian Murphy is determined to stay alive and get back to his wife and daughter in America. Under constant attack from ubiquitous, if slow, zombies, he fixes a banged-up vehicle and hits the road. When his truck gets bogged, he is saved from zombies by Sergeant Daniel Dembele, a recently widowed desertor who is heading to a military base in the north where he hopes to find his son. Daniel agrees, in exchange for the truck, to take Brian to the nearest airbase – and when they find the airbase abandoned, the two men agree to travel north together. With Brian febrile, they stop for supplies in a well-defended village, where the Chief suggests that perhaps Nature is punishing human arrogance and greed.
Traveling again, Brian crashes the car in the darkness, and the men risk lighting a campfire. Daniel shows Brian a family talisman, signifying hope, that he intends to pass down to his son. The men are attacked as they sleep, and Daniel is bitten. At Daniel’s request, Brian shoots him in the head after he dies. Brian journeys alone through the rocky Devil’s Claw and across the desert, constantly fighting or evading zombies, until he finally arrives, dressed in a local nomad’s robes, at the beleaguered northern base. There he fixes the radio and gets through to the US, only to learn that the outbreak is worldwide, there is little hope for his family and “there’s nowhere left to go”. As zombies breach the compound, Brian heads out gravely to await his end, when the talisman round his neck is recognised by Daniel’s young son. Man and boy stand together.
Review: In the wake of 28 Days Later… (2002) and the Dawn of the Dead remake (2004), the zombie became the monster of choice in Noughties horror, with filmmakers lining up to find news ways of making these rotten old shufflers interesting. Amongst the more striking examples, we have seen zombies exposed to romcom pastiche and smart satire (Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland), shakicam aesthetics (Diary of the Dead, [REC]), an alternative Fifities universe (Fido), Saussurean meltdown (Pontypool), banlieue anomie (The Horde) and even their own addled perspective on longing (Colin) – and the zombies of the new millennium have also tended to be fast on their feet, and fuelled by all manner of post-9/11 anxieties (the enemy within, viral rage, etc.).
Amidst such undead innovation, part of what makes The Dead so refreshing is its unabashed classicism, as brothers Howard and Jonathan Ford take their feature debut (which the admen have written, directed, edited, produced and shot themselves) right back to the old school of George A. Romero. The Fords’ zombies shuffle rather than run, slowly but surely, and, as in 1968’s pioneering Night of the Living Dead, are never actually called ‘zombies’. Meanwhile, the sort of postmodern irony that has often taken over zombie flicks of the last decade is here precluded by a tone of intense, deadly earnest. One of the first lines of protagonist Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman), as the evacuation plane that he is in runs out of fuel mid-air, is “we’re all dead anyway” – and his fatalistic resignation ensures that a sense of doom pervades the film from its plane-crash beginning to its wall-breach end. Here, all human effort seems futile in preventing the massed flesh-eaters from ‘coming to get you’, and Brian’s journey is hopelessly circular – a point that the film emphasises by opening near its end.
Not that The Dead, in its backward-looking disinterment of now outmoded zombie tropes, lacks all novelty. Its African setting, unusual to filmgoers (if not to players of Resident Evil 5), makes white middle-class Brian not just potential zombie fodder, but also a stranger in a strange land, and his relationship with local militiaman Daniel Dembele (Prince David Osei), evolving from guarded suspicion to respect and friendship, reprises the tensions of The Defiant Ones (1958). Still, the Fords seem less concerned with the specificities of West Africa’s sociopolitical situation than with a broader, somewhat hokey message about the brotherhood of humanity, and their film might equally have been set in any decentred, ‘exotic’ location.
Where The Dead really stands out from similar films, however, is obvious to see right from the opening shot of a tiny, isolated figure engulfed by a vast, shimmering desertscape. Here never-before-seen locations from Ghana and Burkina Faso become the widescreen stage for an apocalyptic odyssey. It is the sort of awe-inspiring epic vision that was once associated with David Lean or the filmmakers’ (unrelated) namesake John Ford, and represents values of cinematic spectacle whose resurrection is always welcome.