|The Dead (2011)|
In film today it seems the only thing more common than remakes, is the idea of putting a “new spin” on something. Hollywood isn’t content to follow the basic rules but has to reinvent and have a fresh take on a subject. While that isn’t always bad it does at times create cinematic atrocities like Twilight and House of the Dead. With the 2011 zombie move The Dead, doesn’t bother with a new spin. It is classic hand biting, bullet to the head Romero style zombie goodness. Those looking for a return to classic zombie fare should look no further than The Dead. In my opinion it’s the best Romero zombie film since Dawn of the Dead.
That’s right I am saying it’s more of a classic zombie film than several of the master’s latest works. Land and Survival both introduced elements of zombie evolution not present in Romero’s older works. While Diary and Day of the Dead were straight up Romero zombie films, The Dead is a better film than either of those. Visually it reminds me a lot of Day of the Dead with similar feasting, however it doesn’t linger on the “cannibalism” quite as long. Still, and I make take heat from Romero fans, the acting is far superior to anything in Day of the Dead. Day has reached cult status, and has a legion of fans but you have to admit the acting and some of the dialogue is pretty cheesy. There is no cheese, and very little if any humor in The Dead. This is zombie survival at its very best. It follows the Romero rules and it’s full on zombie apocalypse, on a very personal level.
Set in Africa, the story focuses on American Air force Engineer Brian Murphy who is on the last evacuation from war torn West Africa. Engine failure along with the death and reanimation of a passenger causes the plane to crash off the coast and Murphy is the sole survivor (there is one other possible survivor who runs off, just for any purist who might call me). Alone and surrounded by the undead he embarks on a desperate trek to get back to his family and safety.
Along the way he runs into Sergeant Daniel Dembele, whose village was overrun by the undead. Dembele is AWOL and looking for his son who escaped the village. They forge an uneasy alliance as they fight their way north toward sanctuary and through hordes of the undead. Will they find what they are looking for or find that sanctuary is just an illusion.
The Dead takes the very best of early Romero and makes it new and refreshing. Set in the beautiful but stark landscape of Africa. It’s the story of two men brought together by fate and the zombie menace. They are hardly friends to begin, in fact Dembele considers Murphy little more than an invader, with but they grow to respect each other. As they go north their trek becomes more futile and desperate, leading to an end that is both sad and poignant.
There is so much to like about this film. Romero fans will drool in joy at The Dead’s shambling hordes. Like the zombies in Dawn and Night of the Living Dead the horror comes not from the speed or strength of the zombies, but in the inevitability of them. They may be slow but they keep coming. They are legion, and everyone who does joins their ranks. They won’t chase you down, they don’t have too. That is the true horror of the zombie film. There is no escape. Wherever you go, you will find the dead.
Once again the only way to stop them is to shoot them in the head. No one ever says it in the film they just do it. That’s how it should be with zombies and The Dead stays true to the rule.
While the film might not be a gore fest, neither does it shy away from bloodshed. It keeps it bloody but in realistic amounts. The scenes of feeding zombies are the best and bloodiest since Day of the Dead in any zombie movie. Day had gorier, longer shots, but the scenes in The Dead were hardly tame. If anything they were more realistic, as the dead bit into hands, feet, and abdomens.
The protagonists end up fighting not only the zombies, but the environment, while also avoiding the local military, which forces them into more inhospitable environs. The politics never get heavy handed, we get hints of the resentment of Dembele toward the Americans, we see the poverty and waste of war but the filmmakers never preach to us. They just let us take it in and make our own decisions about what is happening in Africa.
What really makes it special is that we grow to care for both these characters. Neither one is in control of the situation. Both are pawns in their own way to forces way beyond them. Dembele is just a soldier, now AWOL to search for his son. Murphy is as he says “just an engineer, when things break I fix them.” These are throw away characters, not carbon copy stereotypes; these are people who could very well be any one of us. Just two lost men in a world gone mad, and when one of them loses their struggle we grieve for him.
In a film like The Dead a happy ending would be a betrayal. There is no betrayal here. The ending is as apocalyptic as they come. Neither of our heroes manage to accomplish their goal, though there is closure. A sad, realistic, inevitable closure, but anything else would have felt false. The Dead ends as it has to end, with the end. I don’t expect a sequel and honestly don’t hope to see one. That last scene said it all, it said enough.