AUGUST 30, 2010
When directors Howard and Jon Ford got up before The Dead and told us that they were inspired by the original Dawn of the Dead, they set the bar pretty high; that's like a priest getting up to do his sermon and telling the parishioners that Jesus helped him write it. But since there had been so few (OK, none, at least on the main screen) outright zombie movies in Frightfest thus far, I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
While the zombies certainly behave in a Romero-esque manner (meaning: they are slow), the rest of the film seems more inspired by Diary of the Dead than Dawn, as our characters are constantly on the go, instead of holing up somewhere. And there's no satire to be found - the movie is deadly serious, almost to a fault. I also wouldn't expect to see lead actor Rob Freeman become a cult favorite the way that Ken Foree has - he's pretty dull, in fact. Word of advice to filmmakers who are about to premiere their film on the 5th day of an increasingly lackluster festival lineup: don't even mention the title of one of the all time greatest horror films (not just zombie) before anyone sees it. After we've made up our minds, go ahead and namecheck whatever the hell you want, but I think I would have enjoyed the film more had I not been given grand visions of an epic zombie tale that fired on all cylinders.
Because it is actually pretty good for the most part. Freeman might be stiff as a board, but Prince David Oseia as his "partner" is terrific as the soldier who is trying to get to a shelter where his family is believed to be, and you will be compelled by every step of his journey, even when the plotting gets a bit repetitive. In fact, the movie would have been even better if they had given the two men more of a conflict, and sort of presented the Enemy Mine of zombie films. It could have been very easy for them to be at odds with each other, given their vastly different backgrounds, but they become best buddies rather quickly, and apart from arguments over whether or not to use their last bit of water to try to fix their vehicle's radiator and things along those lines, they don't really have any problem with each other for the duration of the film. I think milking their "we're stuck together" situation for a while longer could have been vastly beneficial, even if it meant taxing Freeman's acting skills further.
It doesn't help that the zombies are pretty far from menacing. I prefer slow zombies, but even I'll admit that fast ones can be scarier in smaller numbers, which is the order of the day here. Apart from a swarm near the end of the film (which poses little threat - Freeman seemingly takes them all out with a few bullets and a machete), we never see more than 3-4 at a time, and when you add that to their deathly slow pace (even by slow zombie standards), there are a number of scenes that should be "oh shit" moments but come off as more of a minor inconvenience. It's like "Hey, there's a couple of zombies nearby. Speed it up a bit? Cheers." And the whole movie takes place in the open desert, so there's not a lot of scares to be had due to confinement, either. Remember that scene in, ahem, Dawn of the Dead, where Flyboy is stuck in that boiler room with a single zombie and an ass-ton of metal that made his poorly fired bullets ricochet? That was pretty scary/tense, right? Nothing like that here.
But it certainly works as a road adventure, and even though the zombie scenes aren't particularly suspenseful, they are at least numerous and quite surprisingly mushy. I don't think we ever go more than 5-10 minutes without another zombie "attack", and we get a number of hacked off limbs and such each time. It's never over the top or cartoonish (an argument over whether or not one of them should drive is about the only moment of humor in the film), but given the tone of the rest of the film, it's a surprise that they even have gore at all - you can almost expect the zombie deaths to be as dry as everything else. And the zombies sort of all look alike, but there are a number of handicapped ones (they're pretty much all poor/starving Africans) - we've seen zombies crawling or dragging themselves toward a victim before, but usually as the result of an injury we saw them suffer, not because they didn't have any legs to begin with. It's a unique approach, and of course, a very realistic one (as realistic as zombie films can be anyway) that provides some of the social context (which is about the only other relation I saw to Dawn - unlike most modern zombie films, it has something to say).
With more of an attempt at human conflict and better zombie scenes, this could have been one of the best zombie films in years (certainly the best serious one; all of the great recent ones have been more comedic in nature). Instead it's merely a pretty good one, and I'm not sure that's enough for US audiences to give it a chance if/when it ever finds its way here. I'd certainly recommend it to those who are sick of funny and/or fast zombies, but unlike the directors, I won't oversell it for you. Hope you enjoy!
What say you?