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Dead, The (2011)
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by Jay Seaver

"Africa, cradle of humanity - and zombies."
4 stars

Most people who decide to make a zombie movie do it in a bare-bones way, shooting in their hometown rather than going particularly far afield; when you're working with no budget, it's best to be in familiar territory. Brothers Howard and Jonathan Ford decided to do something different, packing their severed limbs in a suitcase and heading to Africa. It's the sort of crazy decision that makes an otherwise conventional movie into something memorable.

Zombie outbreaks can spread fast; the one in The Dead is already consuming a large chunk of northwestern Africa as the movie opens. Foreigners are heading home, but with limited success; an plane evacuating Americans crashes just off-shore and the walking dead are waiting for the three survivors at the beach. Only USAF Lieutenant Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman) is able to make his way through the woods to a nearby village, where he meets local soldier Daniel Dembele (Prince David Oseia). Murphy gets a car running, and the pair set off to find a way back their respective families - Brian searching for an airfield with a plane he can repair and fly to Europe, Daniel heading for the fort where his son has been relocated.

This fort, happily for the audience if less so for the characters, is not in the same fairly generic environment that many post-apocalyptic films favor; it's on the outskirts of the Sahara, on the other side of a series of jagged peaks. The Fords more or less completely upend what this sort of horror film is supposed to look like with a series of breathtaking locations: We get to see an unspoiled-looking beach, villages large and lived-in enough that the characters can move around, forests, those beautiful peaks, and the majestic desert. Cinematographer Jonathan shoots in lush panoramic 35mm, and it's not just a spectacular feast for the eyes: The changing environments give the pair's quest a sense of scale, and the brothers make good use of the widescreen frame.

Because while the scenery is beautiful, there's never any doubt that it's dangerous. A wide-open landscape means that zombies can appear anywhere, and that's what tends to happen: Every time Daniel and Brian stop, undead shamble out from the treeline or the edge of the screen, and even though they're old-school Romero-style zombies - slow and inarticulate - they're an ever-present threat because there seems to be an unlimited supply of them. The Fords do an excellent job of presenting the situation as unnervingly threatening - single zombies can be handled with relative ease, but they add up.

Fortunately, they splatter nicely as well; the Fords have a good crew that makes some nice makeup and prosthetics, and take advantage of the sad fact that it's not hard to find extras with missing limbs in Africa. They have a good idea of when they can trade a little realism for gore, giving the audience a bit of a thrill by seeing a head bashed in. They're also quite good at directing action; the two big scenes that open the movie are especially well-staged. They sometimes fall a bit short where the screenplay is concerned; one sequence of events toward the end starts out promising but fizzles, and it seems like setting a zombie movie in Africa offers some opportunity for commentary that the Fords pass up - though, to be fair, the continent is a big and culturally diverse place; hordes of undead child soldiers and references to irresponsible health policies are likely not relevant to where the movie was filmed (and presumably set) in Burkina Faso and Ghana.

Both Freeman and Oseia are pretty good; both handle action very well and they for the most part avoid overselling their individual anguish. Neither they nor the Fords oversell their them as having much more than a partnership borne out of circumstance, but they both wind up coming across as easy men to respect.

Put "The Dead" anywhere else, and it's still a pretty decent zombie movie. Put it where it is, though, and it's something that's at least a little bit special.

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originally posted: 10/20/11 00:52:34
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  DVD: 14-Feb-2012


  DVD: 14-Feb-2012

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