Contains mild spoilers.
If there's one word that comes to mind watching The Ford brother's The Dead, it's bleak. Filmed in Burkina Faso, the directors paint a beautiful rich African canvas, full of dry tropical savannah and deep blue Pacific water, and contrast this with a foreground full of unremitting death and despair. There is no time to stop and admire the view as from start to finish The Dead offers a world where there is no respite, no hope and death is an inevitability.
The lone survivor of the last ill fated evacuation-flight, engineer Lt. Brian Murphy played by Rob Freeman finds himself stranded with few supplies on the coast of a West African overrun by the living dead. With no clear plan his only focus is to survive long enough to be reunited with his wife and daughter back home. It's focused on this task and travelling away from the coast in a ruined car he manages to fix up that he runs into Sgt. Daniel Dembele (Prince David Oseia) who comes to his rescue after he gets himself into a bit of a pickle.
Discovering that like him, Dembele is focused on reunited with his child, in this case his son, and realising that there is to be no quick escape from the country, the disparate pair agree to share the hundred mile journey north where they believe some safety and answers can be found. So what begins is harrowing tiring journey of survival and the focus of the film.
The zombies of The Dead follow the Romero tradition with the Ford brothers playing very safely with established zombie rules and canon. They're slow shambling mindless monsters motivated by the hunger for living flesh. If anything they're even slower than those in Romero's Dead trilogy but what danger they lose from this speed is more than made up for in their persistence and numbers. Now I've not been to West Africa but I imagine a vastness and emptiness pocketed sporadically with people and villages, I imagine great expanses of land devoid of life and being able to travel for days without seeing another soul. However in The Dead whether resting on a beach or driving through scrub land, whether stumbling without water across the dessert or climbing over deadly rocky peaks, Murphy and Dembele can't move more than five yards without being set upon by the ever abundant undead horde.
It's this constant threat that maintains the feeling of despair felt throughout the film. There is never respite, never a break from surviving; your car breaks down? You have minutes, literally minutes before you need to be on your way again or you'll face being overrun. The heroes must never pause to take stock, never stop moving, and never even for a moment let their guard down. Survival zombie films constantly play with the notion of an ever present threat but rarely have I seen a film with so little pacing changes. The Dead manages only two states, set-upon and nearly set-upon and there is never a moment on their drive where a zombie isn't in view and a threat. Ok, there is a scene where the pair take a small rest in guarded village but even that is interrupted by the notion the safety is transient and illusionary and will not last .
For a world facing true global apocalypse, and a film about survival, Murphy and Dembele are only ever really allowed to deal with the threat of the zombies. Whilst introducing issues of food, water and shelter the Ford brothers only ever really skirt around these other facets of surviving in an apocalyptic world. This was a missed opportunity and was a direct consequence of a narrative that never broke from it's formula of an ever-constant threat and ever-populous environment. From this, the film almost feels like a single constant scene and can be a tad weary and exhausting to watch.
From start to finish the zombies despite their pace seem genuinely brutal and menacing. Driven by insatiable hunger their approach is always tense and dramatic, and when they do get to their target the special effects are vicious and horrifying with zombies ripping and tearing at flesh in an authentic and never over the top way. The eating scenes are genuinely unpleasant and the constant backdrop of severed limbs, blood and disembowelled intestines is not for the squeamish but never feel out of place or forced. With the limited budget and filming difficulties mentioned in interview in the few scant extras the Blu-ray has, kudos must go to the Ford brothers for managing to produce a coherent beautifully crafted movie that feels authentic throughout.
Shot with beauty and style against a gorgeous and glorious African backdrop The Dead captures the hot African pace of life and a world under constant threat. Yet it's the pacing of the threat that has produced a film that can be exhausting to watch and at times dare say a little boring. Something genuinely new and refreshing, and filmed with a beauty and style The Dead is a good zombie film and almost a great one. A missed opportunity, 6/10.