Following Ally only a week after he brought the fantastic The Woman to the table was always going to be difficult. I continued with the contemporary theme picking a film that seems like it has been in production for years and has finally achieved a tiny cinema run and a DVD release. The Dead was made over two years ago and it has taken that long to find a distributor and be released. In that time the Ford brothers have been able to build a slow but growing buzz about the film. Much of this hype has been based on the few reviews of those who managed to see the film at The Toronto Horror Festival and a short trailer on the films website. The very small number of reviews were extremely positive and the trailer showed a film that looked like it may be fresh enough to inject some much needed energy into the zombie genre. Both the setting and story were intriguing and as fan of old school zombie films it was nice to see some shuffling, stumbling, slow zombies. As a result I was very excited about seeing this film. Sadly though it was a film that largely left me cold I did not think it was a terrible one just one in which if you stripped away the initial excitement about the setting was very average indeed and one which had lfew fresh ideas to offer.
I don't think this is awful film and although it is like it zombies fairly slow moving it managed to hold my attention. The star of the show is definitely the setting this film must be up there as one of the most beautiful zombie films ever made. Wither it is a deserted tropical beach or the vast dry landscapes of the desert, or the blazing sun beating down on a remote African village this film definitely has a unique and powerful setting. For a while this setting draws you in the first zombie attacks on an isolated African village are genuinely startling. The first time the plane crash survivors are attacked on the African beach is also very effective. However as time goes on and the novelty of the setting wears off it becomes clear that there really isn't much else going on. The story and acting is ultimately so flimsy that the setting cannot rescue The Dead from mediocrity. The Ford Brothers are both primarily commercial directors and in this film they struggle to make the leap to film director. While they are good at making the action on screen look nice they do not seem to know how to link this into an effective story arch. It sometimes feels like you are watching a collection of separate scenes rather than a coherent film. The bitty nature of the film was a real shame as there were a few scenes when taken on their own which were excellent. A scene where the two main characters have crashed their decrepit old car and the lights have gone out is particularly creepy as are number of other scenes. But ultimately a collection of very good scenes drowns in the larger mediocrity of the film as a whole.
The Zombies in The Dead are a real strength scary, sad, otherworldly they really work. It was genuinely refreshing to see zombies who walk and crawl towards their potential victims. I loved the way in which these zombies began to meld into the background of the African vistas seeming to become a natural part of the landscape. However much like the setting the undoubted quality of the zombies could not save the film from an almost nonexistent story and a poor central performance. Admittedly this was a low budget film but surely the Ford brothers could have cast a better actor than Rob Freeman in the central role. I had never seen this actor before and I now know why, he is the definition of a charisma vacuum. He performs every line of dialogue in the exact same way regardless of the context and crucially in this type of film it is very hard to feel anything for him as it is impossible not to see him as a ham actor. Although Freeman is poor it is a very underwritten part and other than appealing to a western audience I did not see why he was in the film. He was perhaps the token white man put there because the directors felt they could not simply have told an African tale. The African characters and in particular Sgt Daniel Dembele are much more interesting than Freeman's Lt Brian Murphy. Dembele played excellently by African actor Prince Oseia is a really strong creation. He has a reality about him that Freeman never achieves he is also hard as nails. I would have much rather seen a film which focused on his story and struggles rather than Lt Murphy's. David Dontoh is an other African actor who performs admirably in his role as a philosophical village priest trying to protect his village from the undead horde. However just when his and his villages story is becoming compelling we are wrenched back out to follow Freeman's pointless journey.
The Dead is so disappointing not because it is awful but because it is such a wasted opportunity. There are so many ingredients in this film that hint at what could have been achieved. The African setting is compelling and could really have offered something new to the zombie legacy. The setting also gave the directors such a great opportunity to use the genre to discuss the range of issues effecting this troubled part of the world. However this does not happen and once the impact of the setting wears off we are left with a film that is empty of any new ideas or even a semblance of a compelling story. And it is the story that is the second major disappointment. It is sad that the Ford brothers did not have the courage of their convictions to focus exclusively on the African characters and their journeys. Both Sgt Dembele and the chief are strong, believable characters and perhaps most importantly characters the audience care about what happens to them. It is a sad indictment of western cinema that the directors feel they have to shoe-horn in a white American as the main character a character who proves to be the least interesting aspect of this film. The Dead is a film that offered so much and in the end delivers very little, what a shame and what a missed opportunity.