Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Guest Review - The Dead (2010)


Country: UK

In a short piece I wrote several months ago for Videotape Swapshop on George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), I light heartedly remarked on the prolificacy, or over saturation, of zombie films within the contemporary horror canon as having become “ten a penny”. To elaborate on this comment, I would like to consider what might be perceived as a cyclical regression or perhaps the creative distress of the genre belonging to the Living Dead. This is to say that: since the late 70s, the undead in horror film have chewed on the bones of exploitation; groaned and wailed through the grue caked cityscapes of revisionism; shuffled down the path of post-modernism and found themselves back at the beginning of the nightmare – collected as a clawing mob outside the fortress of the High Concept. In a sense, the Morti Viventi sub genre has finally started to eat itself…

There are, of course, some exceptions to this “rule”. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Marc Price’s Colin (2008) have all reconfigured the subset landscape in some way. I mention British productions here intentionally, because it is to a fairly recent British zombie film that I would like to draw attention; The Dead (2009), an independently produced picture directed by siblings Howard and Jonathan Ford. The Dead is of particular interest because it attends to each critical strain of the zombie film without ever making a whole hearted commitment to one in particular. This is not to say that the film is a confused one. Or even that it is a multi faceted work of generic distinction. Rather, that it is a useful example of what I would like to argue is the kaleidoscopic aesthetic and the philosophically fractured condition of the horror film, and specifically, the zombie sub genre as it exists today.

When the last evacuation flight out of Africa crashes off the coast of West Africa, American Air Force Engineer Lt. Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman) is the sole survivor in a land where the dead are returning to life and attacking the living. On the run in a hostile and inhospitable parched landscape, Murphy has to use his wits and ingenuity if he is to get home to his family. When Murphy’s path crosses with that of Sergeant Daniel Dembele (Prince David Osei), whose village has been torn apart by the reanimated dead, they join forces. The two desperate men from two very different cultures fight side by side to survive the incredible (and dangerous) vistas of Africa as it succumbs to the deadliest of viruses…

Raised on the border that straddles rural Hampshire with the leafy suburbia of Surrey – a world as far removed from the arid milieu of their film as could be possible, the Ford brothers appropriate stunning Burkina Faso locations for the sake of “difference” in a sub genre steeped in urban backdrops. Superficially, The Dead’s closest ties, then, are to a film like Bruno Mattei’s Zombie Creeping Flesh (aka Virus, 1980). Both escape the built up cities and tightrope walk across a sandy tundra of viscera and quasi socio-political subtext that concerns itself with the plight of the Third World. These concerns include (but are not limited to) aspects of cultural difference, racial separatism and the shamanism of tribal witch doctors. The Dead embraces what we might call the thematic peccadillo of the “pasta splatter” Morti Viventi. It’s worth mentioning here too that if The Dead is indeed a re-working of Mattei’s idea, we should consider that Mattei himself was working from the groundwork laid by Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 (1979). Which makes The Dead, to an extent, a copy of a copy – or, a third generation zombie movie.

Despite this, the Ford brothers’ film rejects an overt relationship with genuine exploitation because it relates itself with what we might see as a revisionist approach. There is, of course, the distinctive use of environment, which tips its hat to the Corbucci’s and Altman’s of the revised Western landscape. There is also the handling of the protagonist role – in which, whilst Romero’s black protagonist apparently survived Dawn of the Dead, Daniel is nonchalantly dispensed with at the end of The Dead’s second act. Most significantly, there is the notion of a post-millennial anxiety. In his history of the genre Book of the Dead Jamie Russell describes a new approach in the 21st century to zombie film making, one shaped by the popularity of Resident Evil videogames, the threat of the SARS virus and a post 9/11 paranoia. The living dead epidemic in The Dead is merely a symptom of a virus never fully described but one which we have become increasingly familiar with beyond the remit of fantasy or horror. Likewise, the presence of the American military remains largely unexplained though, in this period of homeland security and apparent American expansionism, it is equally unsurprising.

If The Dead’s strongest thematic urges are towards revisionism of the genre, then the weakest thread of interpretation is probably the post modernist approach. The Dead is hinged on an emotional and essentially linear narrative. This conventional and logical approach to story telling sees its two protagonists come together in a joint effort to return to their families. And it does so in a way that we can both understand and engage with as the audience. There is some play on structure. Whereas Zombi 2 had a beginning, middle and (depressing) end, and where Umberto Lenzi’s beginning met its end full on in a novel, tail chasing (and thoroughly head scratching) finale in Nightmare City (1980), here there is a grim inertia. The Dead begins towards its end in a prologue that borrows from the beginning of Lawrence of Arabia, only to then join the main narrative thrust midway through the last evacuation flight out of flesh ravaged West Africa. Ultimately, this narrative horseplay lacks the dedication of a truly post modernist approach to structure or characterization. The Dead plays out in a rather orthodox manner from here on in, lacking the dismantled pathos of Colin or the deadly semiotic of Pontypool (2009) to truly engage with this approach.

Then there is the High Concept. The idea in which we might choose to describe The Dead as: Black Hawk Down. With zombies. The film’s title might be the most obvious indicator of the film makers’ leanings. Perhaps Howard and Jonathan Ford intend to christen their film with the genre’s most authoritative title. There is clearly a commercial concern in doing so. Regardless, it is too tempting to read into the absence of a hyperbolic/descriptive prefix. After all, “When there is no more room…” for Night…Dawn… Day…Flight…Diary… Land… Porn(?!) ad infinitum as a prefix, where else are you supposed to go? But The Dead is also a fitting title because it evokes the overarching defeatism of a film uninterested in a studio friendly ending. There is an inherent High Concept aspect to the film, but it sidesteps a whole hearted dedication to the approach through what we may describe as an analogous treatment to its story – that is, the Fulci/Mattei Third World concern.

That said The Dead’s premise is simple enough to allow the directors (who had previously made their money through advertising and commercial making a la fellow Brit Ridley Scott), to invest in what is undoubtedly a sumptuous visual proposition. In this way, the films undeniable style takes hold, from the frightful sound engineering used in the plane crash sequence, the subtle Foley work of Xu Miao and Xin Li in the creepy, abandoned village scenes, and the considered, steadicam assisted, mise-en-scene of its locations. The future of the zombie film is pleasingly vague, though it is likely that it will continue to configure itself through some expression of exploitation, revisionism, post modernism, the High Concept and even likelier, a mixture of some or all of the above. My own suspicion, for what it is worth, is that revisionism and the High Concept will continue to cross paths so long as the studios see a commercial viability in the genre…Whilst Romero has enjoyed the generic renaissance and dug up the bodies of his own films, the Ford brothers come to represent a new generation of filmmakers that we would do well to keep an eye on. Brought up on the quick cutting of MTV; a back catalogue of DPP films; the increased (online) accessibility of film theory and the ailment of a cinematic A.D.H.D, they may struggle to rest in one place for too long…

© Mike Commane 2012

Many thanks to Mike for this excellent review of a film, I must confess, I’d never heard of until Mike mentioned it for a possible write up. I’m particularly shame faced about this because it’s a recent example of British horror! If you enjoyed Mike’s review, then I urge you to check out his brilliant Videotape Swapshop for more of his writing. 


  1. Excellent review. I just watched this a few nights ago myself. Had been meaning to pick up the R2 DVD for a while now, but found it in a local wal mart for $10. It reminded me a lot of Fulci's ZOMBIE and Mattei's HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD as well. There were more things I liked about it then didn't.

  2. Thanks for the kind words! Totally agree with the Mattei connection, It definitely borrows from the Italian habit of hopping over to Africa for a good old fashioned "polemic" - Howard and Jon Ford landed themselves in some online hot water defending the film on twitchfilm, going so far as to suggesting DAWN OF THE DEAD was out of date! as irksome as that may be, they've certainly made an interesting and rather well polished film...


Related Posts with Thumbnails