Saturday, February 25, 2012

New Release Review : The Dead



After crashing off the coast, Lt. Brian Murphy battles for survival across the vast terrains of Africa in search for a way to get back to his beloved family. Joined by local military man Daniel Dembele, who is also searching for his son, both men join forces, all the while battling against the ever-present threat of the living dead.

Before George Romero came along and forever made the term 'zombie' synonymous with brain hungry beasts, zombies were more akin to slaves, with the whole idea of the dead coming back to life originating from Haitian and African culture. White Zombie, the first zombie movie ever made, came out in 1932, and both it and most of the subsequent pre-Romero zombie movies used the undead as a sort of allegory for colonial slavery. There wasn't flesh hanging from their skin and they weren't out to feed on the living, but rather the zombies of the early zombie films were fairly human looking African Americans who were being used to do the bidding of the white man.

In 1968, George Romero presented the world with Night Of The Living Dead, forever changing the landscape of the zombie film. Through Romero's eyes, zombies became flesh hungry animals, a new breed of modern movie monster to keep us all up at night. Gone was the slavery aspect of the zombie, with Romero even bringing in a black actor as the hero who battled the hordes of shambling undead. The rest, is of course history.

Now since Romero's original trilogy of the dead, there have sprung up literally thousands of wanna-be Romero's over the years, some totally aping his ideas and others lampooning them. As a result, the market has become absolutely flooded with zombie cinema in the past few decades, so much so that the zombie movie as a whole has effectively become stripped of its teeth. Zombies are no longer scary and zombie movies have become less about story & meaning and more about filmmakers just wanting to get their name out there by slapping some liquid latex on their friends and having them chomp on each others guts, saturating the landscape of the genre with gory films that are as mindless as the zombies that inhabit them. The whole sub-genre has just become an easy go-to for low budget filmmakers and aside from a few gems here and there, zombies just aint what they used to be of late. Sad, but true.

Enter brothers Howard & Jonathan Ford. A few years back they decided to bring zombies back to their African roots, only this time with the Romero inspired taste for human meat in tow. Fusing together the past and more modern day depictions of the undead, the brothers Ford came out of Africa with what they simply titled The Dead, the latest in zombie cinema which just this past Valentine's Day saw home video release here in the states. The result? A true old-school zombie flick that stands high above the majority of zombie movies made in the last several decades, a refreshing piece of zombie cinema that breathes new life into the sub-genre as a whole. Bringing true artistry back to the zombie movie, The Dead is one big ole slice of bleak undead awesomeness that reminds us why we started loving those hungry walkers in the first place. The dead are back, baby!

The Ford Brothers waste absolutely no time in getting to the good stuff here, as we're immediately thrust into an African wasteland populated by the living dead from the minute the film begins, never getting the comfort of experiencing life before the dead began coming back to life. For a solid 30 minutes at the start of the film, it's nothing but zombie carnage and head shots, with very little dialogue spoken and very little happening aside from a man doing his best to avoid becoming a hot lunch. Beautifully shot against the beautiful West African landscape, this 30 minutes of dramatic intensity and Fulci levels of gore is one of the strongest openings to a horror movie I've seen in some time, immediately grabbing your attention and letting you know that you're in store for something really special. And boy are you ever.

After that 30 minutes, The Dead slows down quite a bit (but never bores) and takes the focus a bit off the bloodshed and more onto the story of two fathers trying to make it back to their loved ones in one living piece. It's this juxtaposition of story and gory that makes The Dead so compelling, rife with both the meaning and the blood & guts that Romero's best films provided. If the master taught us anything, it's that an effective zombie movie needs ample amounts of both to leave any kind of impression. In that regard, The Dead is truly one zombie movie that should please all who pray to the altar of Romero.

Let's talk about that gore for a second. There's plenty of it in this movie and it's all really well done, a highly impressive mix of practical FX and CG work. Whether zombies are munching on humans or humans are blowing zombies' heads off, it all looks and feels totally real and visceral, which is a lot more than can be said about the majority of zombie movies of late. So big check in the gore department.

Now the most exciting thing here for fans of the Romero brand of zombie cinema is that there's not a single fast moving zombie in sight in The Dead. This movie is old-school all the way and the zombies are of the shambling slow moving Fulci variety, less like the rage infected super zombies of the current times and more like actual dead people. In keeping them realistically dead and threatening more because of their numbers than their strength or speed, the Ford Brothers have once again made zombies scary, as they by all means should be. In fact, the zombies in this one are some of the scariest I've ever seen on screen, ever present and truly dangerous. I'm not a guy who's totally opposed to fast moving zombies, as I feel there's a place in movies for both varieties of the undead, but this movie reminded me that it's the slow moving silent types that really get under my skin. Zombies man, they creep me the fuck out.

I found very little to not like about The Dead. In fact, I really didn't find anything to not like about it (OK so the lead actor isn't the greatest actor ever, but he's totally serviceable and likeable regardless). Like a true zombie, The Dead is a quiet slow moving beast that packs a serious bite and it's for my money not only one of the best zombie films in years but one of the better horror films in recent years as well. Just like how Stake Land perked up my interest in the up until that point tired vampire movie, The Dead does the same for zombie cinema, showing that in the right hands even the most tired of conventions can be made fresh and exciting again. As far as I'm concerned, The Dead is the first truly great horror film to see release in 2012, one all fans of the living dead absolutely need in their lives.

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