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In Association with
The Dead (2010)
Directors: Howard J. Ford and Jon Ford

review by Paul Higson

Back in June, the gloriously retrospective Bradford Fantastic Film Weekend seemed to give even less attention to the new. With two main streams and few repeats some preplanning was necessary, and I visited the trailers of the new releases online and found them mostly unimpressive. Even Hobo With A Shotgun was almost shoved out of the way with the opportunity to catch something else significantly rarer or at the very least take a break from the schedule. The trailer for The Dead felt like a chronological condensation of the actual film, trundling forward with a zombie instep. Landscapes and black zombies, dialogue minimal, a visual synopsis or truncation, it promised little. At best it suggested perhaps a weird re-imagining of The Defiant Ones, and at worst summoning up Aristede Massaccesi's Porno Holocaust. As a result it became a definite no-no.

It was latterly that I realised that it was directed by Jon and Howard J. Ford, British filmmakers with a penchant for the African subcontinent. One previous effort was the feature film Distant Shadow, a thriller with science fiction overtones starring Shane Ritchie, and dependent on that 'actor' I dread to think how that might have turned out. Although I have yet to see Distant Shadow it was granted a video and DVD release in the UK. The Dead has been popping up on the festival circuit wherever and whenever it can and along with its rising dead has come a rising interest from the horror fan audience at large. Landing in Manchester on the final day of the Grimm Up North film festival (October 2011) I could not arguably put this British epic abroad on hold again.

Set in Sierra Leone but filmed in the country that has become the modern heart of African cinema, Burkino Faso, The Dead opens towards the story's end then returns to the outset, a zombie plague underway, and a plane carrying the last Americans out. In the plane, a bite victim dies and immediately turns, clamping his teeth on a soldier who shoots it in the head and then turns the gun on himself. Crouched in a corner is military engineer Lieutenant Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman) looking a little bewildered and concerned. The pilots struggle to keep the aircraft aloft having lifted into the sky with inadequate fuel. The sequence seems influenced by a similar scene in Michael Wesley's Scarecrows.

The plane goes down in the sea with only three survivors, and the walking dead hitting the beach following the commotion. Murphy breaks open a crate and arms himself before the flesh eaters can reach him. A second injured survivor is less fortunate and the third, the only one armed, abandoned them for the trees. His previous apparent vulnerability was possibly down to his lack of control, his dependency on the pilots and the situation currently out of his hands. Back on the ground it is back upon him. But here, the fight is still a close one. He is one man, and the shuffling dead have a habit of creeping up on you. He fixes a vehicle, working automobiles hard to come by, and begins the long journey back to base. His technical and engineering background gives him a Mr Fix-It ability that might help him survive across difficult terrain and deadly opponents. One or two close calls later there is a timely rescue by Sergeant Dembele (Prince David Osei), a deserter from a border control. Dembele has returned to his village to discover his wife dead but informed that is only son managed to flee with the army.

Their rust-bucket transportation carries them day and dangerous night through the bush and brush. The airport offers Murphy no fixable aircraft and the film a reference point to Dawn Of The Dead, a film which in turn credited its own zombie apocalypse to a hand me down African belief that 'when there is no room in hell the dead will walk the earth.' They proceed. The terrain varies. The mechanical problems increase. The only absent obstacle are the fellow survivors. Civil wars and tribal conflicts are abandoned, the living finding unification in the face of a hellish apocalypse. The living of the African subcontinent are aware that they are in decreasing number if not already the minority and waive all historical grudges to preserve what remains. This might not initially extend to the white soldier, left behind, the indigenous crowd well aware that the exploitative Americans have fled at the first sight of a hungry cadaver.

Murphy is vouched for by Dembele, they are now a team keeping one another alive. But even once they are separated again Murphy's passage is unhindered by the alive who are only interested in escaping the dead. The horrors of previous conflicts have prepared them for this weirder nightmare. It helps the local forces to make crucial decisions on who can be saved and who cannot. No uninjured survivor is left behind. Murphy is aided by the odd cheat. When a bit mother begs him to transport her baby to safety and shoot her in the head, this stinks of a get out of trouble prop, but surprisingly, the child is taken from him instead in a casually benevolent moment when a passing truck crammed with survivors allows the child on board. There is no ride for Murphy, by now on foot, and neither does he request one.

The Dead is generally captivating but there is the occasional narrative blip and as the movie approaches its end implausibility becomes his new travelling companion. It has been a struggle for survival but suddenly he acquires the super-heroic ability to carve a path through the zombie horde and scale a wall into a compound and fairy-tale coincidences give the film a faux conclusion. The dead are true slow-coaches but surge when very close which adds to the dishonesty.

There are clear parallels between the on-screen bloodbath and the brutal atrocities committed in civil wars across Africa. Similarly, there is a j'accuse to the modern British media wherein the darker the colour of the victim's skin the more allowable is the carnage in photojournalism and documentarian evidence. The Guardian recently published an image of a smiling killer with victim's testicles in his hand, and another of a screaming man in flames at the moment a cleaver is embedded in his skull - but would they have published them if the victims were white? I question if these are outright concerns of the Ford brothers and the real motivation was merely one of a rare exercise of dropping a popular monster into an unusual backdrop. The landscapes do swing it for the film and it has its fair share of claustrophobic thrills en dusty route.

The Dead poster

The Dead DVD

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