by Matt Smith
Watching the Ford Brothers’ zombies-in-Africa opus The Dead recently, I found my mind wandering in that satisfying way which means the film is doing its job. While taking in the gloriously creepy images of slow, shambling former inhabitants of entire villages and towns in broad daylight–visually all the more bizarre than the normal night-time lighting that accompanies the genre; a point to which I will return–I couldn’t help but think of Claire Denis, whose Africa-set films explore white intrusion and post-colonial race relations in similarly unsettling terms, minus, you know, the whole “living dead” thing. I do not intend in any way to try and elevate The Dead to the level of artistry evident in Denis’ oeuvre. It is very much a traditional zombie apocalypse narrative. I do, however, merely seek to point out how even seemingly disparate strands of otherwise ignored genre cinema may be traced through to the thematics of mainstream art cinema.
The Dead follows Lt. Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman) of the U.S. Air Force as he attempts to escape from an Africa that has been overrun by the eponymous dead. The story opens on our hero as he is walking across the desert, dressed in a nomad’s robes, constantly finding himself in the presence of the rotting, decaying menace. The film then jumps backward in time to “The Last Evacuation,” in which his plane crashes. The remainder of the film is an extended flashback that takes us from the plane crash to the desert, with several harrowing and visually arresting sequences in between, before a final confrontation with the horde as they storm into a desert enclave that has been heavily fortified.
While it would be easy to dismiss the narrative as overly simple or even quasi-racist, with a white savior of black Africa as its main character, such a reading is complicated by more than one turn in the film. Of primary importance is that, for the first three-quarters of the film at least, we also have a second protagonist, Sgt. Daniel Dembele (Prince David Oseia), who is also seeking to leave the country following the deaths of his family (and entire village). He joins up with Murphy for the majority of the trip to the desert, and the two form a friendship during their journey, brought together by similar backgrounds (military service, loss of family) and by survival instinct. Second, though the film’s ending is ambiguous, the final shot in which Murphy and a young West African boy stand together against an oncoming horde of undead speaks to the spirit of kinship that the film fosters in the relationship between Murphy and Dembele.
I think the film is much more interesting to think about in terms of the juxtaposition of genre that allows the intrusion narratives of Claire Denis that popped into my mind while watching it to be compared to a traditional horror film. The American military, and white presence in general, has become so intolerable, that the land itself is revolting, and though it may take its own cultures with it (much like the devastating civil wars that cropped up and still occur throughout the continent in the post-colonial era), The Dead makes the point that Denis has made repeatedly: no matter how long they have spent in the land, white people are not African, and have not answered fully for the complicated history of colonialism.
I have mentioned several times the startling visuals The Dead brings to the genre. There is something eery about zombies, a movie monster so overly familiar in current popular culture that it’s bordering on over-saturation (some would say we’ve already arrived at that point), shambling about in the light of day. And in the wild, dusty brown color palette of the African bush, those familiar shapes and rotting flesh somehow seem to breathe a little bit of life back into the flagging horror sub-genre. Action in zombie movies typically takes place at night, when us silly humans have a harder time making out our surroundings. The shock of a character walking into a pack of the undead in the daylight is no less jarring than stumbling through the shadows only to have their jugular ripped out. The film lacks a musical score as well, leaving the heavy lifting solely to the cinematography, and this also works to provide an eery quietness in a film that can at times seem almost placid and serene in its open spaces. The zombies in The Dead are scary again, constantly on the move, highly visible, and unrelenting, always ready to eat some tasty new flesh.
Which brings me to the gore, of which this film has plenty. Unlike the Romero films however, in which the director seems to delight in the inventive new ways he can devise to kill the undead, the shock and fun is not from originality as much as quantity. There are chunks of people consumed throughout, and some particularly nasty artery-spurting kills rendered even more impressive by the fact that they are not hidden in shadow. There are also a few impressive driving sequences, mostly during the night, in which the dirt roads which cut through the bush are combined with the pitch black darkness and the car’s headlights that are impressively shot and executed as well.
The Dead makes for a fun zombie movie, and is a vast improvement over some of the flicks that have been coming out in the past few years riding the zombie wave to its inevitable nadir. It’s not perfect, and it can definitely seem to be checking off the hits on some big ole zombie movie plot checklist out there somewhere in the ether (I imagine this exists in an article which follows the example of virtually everything Jeanine Basinger has ever written about the Hollywood war film). But The Dead nonetheless provides some solid scares and gore, and fans of the genre should be pleased enough to watch it at least once. I’ll be going back eventually just for some more of the creepy daylight images.
3.5 out of 5 stars.