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Movie Review: The Dead

Take a walk with 'The Dead'
The Dead
Genre: Horror
Running Time: 105 min
Release Date: 2011-10-07
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By "Lawrence Toppman"
The Charlotte Observer

Zombie movies aren’t really about zombies very often.

They warn about the threat of communist conformity (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers”) or satirize rampant, mindless consumerism (“Dawn of the Dead”) or lament the rise of a fascist class suppressing the poor (“Day of the Dead”). They’re metaphoric depictions of AIDS or the Ebola virus or any kind of modern plague. But they’re virtually never just gorefests.

The Ford brothers’ take on this tradition offers a fair number of shocks and the arm-chomping that is de rigueur mortis for this genre. Yet it has things to say, mostly by implication, before a finish that took me by surprise.

British siblings Howard J. Ford and Jonathan Ford, who wrote and directed together, set their story in western Africa. (Howard also produced, and Jonathan did the surprisingly pretty cinematography.)

A plane full of white workers, the last to evacuate during an epidemic that turns infected corpses into flesh-eaters, crashes off the coast. U.S. Navy Lt. Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman) survives and commandeers a rusty truck in an all-but-deserted village.

On the road, he meets Sgt. Daniel Dembele (Ghanian actor Prince David Osei), who has been separated from his son and believes the boy has been taken to a military base in the north of his country. (I don’t think that country has a name. The film was shot in Burkina Faso and Ghana.)

Most of the story consists of the day-to-day survivalism needed to cross a land whose inhabitants want only to eat you. The Fords give us old-fashioned predators: Zombies shuffle slowly, silently, patiently forward, as implacably destructive as Time itself. Meanwhile, the Fords play off our memories from books, TV news and other movies.

The black zombies’ bloody munching can’t help but summon images of cannibalism, especially in a western hemisphere that misunderstood Africa for so long. (Though here, the dead blissfully eat whites and blacks alike.)

Soldiers from both sides of a civil war, who seem indistinguishable to us, stop slaying each other long enough to fight the common enemy. Yet peace may have come too late: A wise chief (Ghanian actor David Dontoh) suggests Nature is restoring a delicate balance, using the men who have long damaged the Earth to wipe each other out.

Philosophy never overwhelms us; we’re nudged, not forced, into thinking about these things as the leading men narrowly escape being bitten time and again. (A question: Wouldn’t zombies stink to high heaven? If your nose worked, how could one ever sneak up on you?)

Freeman, a journeyman actor who can seem stolid, finally catches a little fire. And I suppose his numbness might be a legitimate reaction to what’s happening all around, though it sets in immediately.

Murphy trudges across bright orange deserts, over towering rocks and under a startlingly blue sky, trying to find safe harbor in a world that suddenly offers none. His terrible solitude and dehumanization are the things all zombie movies come down to – good ones, anyhow – and “The Dead” goes on that list.

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10/13/2011 - The Charlotte Observer - Lawrence Toppman

Quiet, gripping story of zombies in West Africa shows there’s always something new to be found in this genre by skilled filmmakers.

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