Monday, October 31, 2011

Where I Discuss The Dead

You can't seem to escape from The Dead. Not only are zombies currently in vogue, in movies and other media, but almost every zombie movie I can think of off the top of my head uses the words “The” and “Dead” in its title. Hmmm...let's see, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Land of the Dead, The Walking Dead (this one is a television series, not a movie), and, of course, The Dead.

The list goes on.

The only movies that appear to escape this naming convention are the 28 Days Later films.
When I was a kid, we lived in fear of a nuclear holocaust. It appears that even though the zombie movie lurched its way into the mainstream back in the 60's with the release of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, the fear of a zombie apocalypse appears to have struck a chord with this generation. Maybe it's because we're currently in danger of becoming metaphorical zombies due to the plethora of ADHD inducing media and devices to which we are constantly subjected these days. Maybe I'm reading too much into this current spike in the public's interest in zombies.
But I was discussing the Ford Brothers's The Dead.
The Dead is a fairly conventional zombie movie. Two protagonists, US Navy lieutenant Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman) and Sergeant Daniel Dembele (Prince David Osei), a soldier in some unspecified West African country, are both trying to reconnect with their families. A movie with such a storyline may have been fodder for the Lifetime TV network were it not for the fact that what lies between both men and their loved ones is a horde of flesh eating zombies that can only be stopped by shooting them in the head, crushing their heads, chopping off their heads or bifurcating their heads.
I'd rate The Dead as being somewhere between meh and good. Its problem is that, with the exception of its African setting, it doesn't really bring anything new to the zombie movie genre. We've seen all this before. We have zombies and people who are trying to avoid being eaten by the zombies. We have the customary bits of social commentary that always seem to find their way into a zombie movie script; in The Dead, Daniel berates Murphy about the insanity of American foreign policy (you send soldiers to kill us and doctors to heal us, Daniel says incredulously) and waxes philosophic with another African soldier about how the zombie plague came to be (perhaps it's Mother Nature trying to restore the balance that the human race has upset on the planet). The final scene in the film could have been cribbed from the “true ending” of 28 Days Later (that is, before test audiences saw it, couldn't handle it, and forced Danny Boyle to do a reshoot).
What's frustrating is that there were a number of opportunities throughout The Dead for it to differentiate itself from its predecessors or at least crank up the tension, which tended to wax and wane to an almost frustrating degree, resulting in a movie-going experience in which some genuinely tense moments were separated by scenes which were so pedestrian as to invoke a sentiment almost akin to clinical detachment.
To list some of these squandered opportunities off the top of my head:
  1. The zombies in The Dead were of the slow-moving, shuffling variety. Such zombies are a threat under two circumstances: When they approach their intended victims under cover, either of darkness or of the local terrain, or when their victims begin to succumb to fatigue, since human beings need to rest, while zombies do not. While there were plenty of scenes in The Dead when zombies came lurching out of the darkness or the bush, the inexorable fatigue that the protagonists would have felt in their sleep-deprived states, and to which they would have been in terror of succumbing, was, for the most part, glossed over.
  2. There is a scene in The Dead which involves a baby being left in the care of one of the protagonists. This scene was pretty pointless since the protagonist's dilemma is conveniently solved when a truck full of refugees arrives to take charge of the infant immediately after the scene in which he is left with the baby. Frankly, I was expecting the film to take a big detour from the conventional path it had been following and turn into some exciting new hybrid of a zombie movie and the Lone Wolf and Cub films. But no, the protagonist gets the baby in one scene and in the next, is absolved of his responsibility for caring for the baby. Deus ex machina sucks in the 23rd century and it sucks in zombie movies.
In addition to the detours missed on The Dead's meandering way down the path blazed by the zombie movies that came before it, there was a moment in the film that invoked some genuine head scratching on my part and another which not only precipitated some more head scratching but some serious thought as to whether the scene was intended to be one of those scenes in movies intended to bludgeon you over the head with some sort of “heavy” message.
The purely head-scratching moment came about when, in one scene, Murphy insists against turning on the headlights of the truck in which he and Dembele are traveling for fear of attracting zombies but then, in the scene immediately following it, argues that they should make a campfire, citing their need to cook and eat something. Given this sudden reversal on Murphy's part and that they could have easily delayed making a cooking fire for the few hours it would have taken for the sun to rise after which the fire would have had less of a chance of attracting any zombies, I was left wondering if there was meant to be a scene (or scenes) between these two which had wound up on the cutting room floor.
The head-scratcher which may or may not have been meant to deliver a message was when Murphy took to the trees in order to safely get some sleep since the zombies in The Dead are not able to climb. This begs the question why the people in the unnamed African country in which the film is set didn't just seek sanctuary in the rocky crags that Murphy crossed rather than seeking it in the open desert beyond the crags where the zombies could get to them. While watching Murphy climb a tree and set up a nest in which to sleep, in light of the scene in which it is postulated that the zombie plague is a correction that Mother Earth is unleashing upon mankind, I was left wondering whether we, the audience, were meant to interpret Murphy's ascent into the arboreal home of man's simian ancestors as a devolution of sorts, something akin to the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the apes discover the monolith (and tools/weapons), only in reverse.
If this wasn't the intent of this scene, I suppose you could just add it to the list of missed opportunities.

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