The new zombie movie, The Dead, from the Ford brothers, is a strangely effective horror film. It features virtually no plot, and the characterization is thin. Other than the apocalyptic mayhem and barren countryside of rural Africa, there’s not much to the 105-minute feature. Yet, it somehow transfixes the audience, urging us to stick with it until the end. It’s not that we feel beholden to the main character (Air Force Engineer Lt. Brian Murphy, played by Rob Freeman) or that we’re expecting some big reveal about why the zombie crisis began. Howard J. Ford and Jon Ford have simply created a genre flick that keeps us guessing and traipsing until the final credits.
The first 30 minutes feature almost no dialogue. We come to learn of the story by its visual, and often unsettling, images. The undead are walking the earth (these zombies move more like George A. Romero’s films, rather than The Walking Dead — slow and steady wins the race), and Murphy finds himself the sole survivor of a terrible airplane crash. With his water canteen, big gun and tons of ammo to keep him company, it’s up to the military man to survive in the blazing African sun.
There’s little time to dawdle, so Murphy heads into the bush, shooting zombies in the head if they get too close. He befriends Sgt. Daniel Dembele (Prince David Osei), who skipped out on his military duties to look for his son. The two become a veritable zombie-killing machine, and once they find a working car, their hope for survival remains intact.
Whether or not Dembele finds his son and what motivates Murphy to keep walking in the pulsating heat are immaterial to the overall story. The Dead prides itself on violent kills and thrilling action. Any attempts at catharsis or drama feel pushed and unreal (the flashbacks to Murphy’s family are particularly misplaced).
What makes the movie an original zombie flick has less to do with the walking dead and more to do with the location. The film looks and feels authentic. The shacks that Dembele and Murphy hole up in are weather-worn and falling apart. The terrain is harsh and unforgiving. These aren’t sets; this feels like painful reality. Capturing the rising and setting sun against this backdrop gives The Dead its strongest attribute.
It’s a shame the rest of the movie doesn’t match the location. Freeman is an able actor, but he’s unable to sell the serious lines. Osei is stuck in a cliche part that doesn’t allow him to grow as a character. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that most of the acting in the movie feels zombie-like.
The Fords are able horrormeisters who obviously have a passion for reinventing tried-and-true genres. They succeed, for the most part. With 15 minutes chopped off the running time and a little more context to the global outbreak (which is never explained fully), The Dead would rank among the best.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
Written and directed by Howard J. Ford and Jon Ford
Starring Rob Freeman and Prince David Osei
Running time: 105 minutes
Rated R for bloody zombie violence and gore