Recalling the days when zombies actually behaved like the dead come back to life, 'The Dead' offers horror fans everywhere a spectacular apocalyptic vision of flesh eaters run amok. Not since Danny Boyle's '28 Days Later' have we seen anything this exciting. Granted, there are arguably a few movies and one TV show sprinkled in between these two British flicks which satisfy most enthusiasts, or at least hold them over until the next great thing. But for my money, this is it. Balancing the graphic — and rather shocking, actually — gore with an intelligent story about survival, this is an excellent zombie feature worth celebrating.
From the Ford brothers, a UK filmmaking duo known for their low-budget actioners, the plot is set in western Africa, which incredibly gives it a good, chilling atmosphere due to it being and feeling so distant and foreign. That sense of otherness plays into our level of comfort as we watch small remnants of the familiar under siege by the unfamiliar — scary-looking bodies with cold, glassy eyes desiring to infect the flesh of the living. Much of the movie's scare factor, in fact, comes from the wonderful extras giving it their all as zombies. Our military protagonists (Rob Freeman and Prince David Oseia) need only survive their overwhelming numbers.
The story hints at displaying complete admiration of George A. Romero and his hugely influential zombie classic, particularly in the conversation of the two soldiers. Much like the original 'Living Dead,' there is a clear, mostly unspoken racial divide between them, which is subtly intensified by an even larger separation of cultural differences. Lt. Murphy (Freeman) is an American in Africa, there purely for monetary gain but now stranded to wander through the deserts after his plane crashed. Sgt. Dembele (Oseia) is gone AWOL, heading north in hopes that earlier evacuation raids picked up his missing son. This is a story not about one coming out the hero, but of the two working together for a common goal: reuniting with family.
The sibling filmmakers follow the men's pilgrimage to a rumored safe-haven with a kind of travelogue sensibility, making sure to give viewers a clear sense of Africa's vastness. One of the Fords, along with another Ford, this time by the name of Jon, worked on the cinematography. It's sharply focused with a constant exchange of uncomfortable close-ups and equally distressing wide-angle POV shots that attempt to take in the landscape's entirety. When the camera pushes in on the faces of either hero, urgency and suspense hit a nerve-wracking high. But switch to an extreme long shot and we're left with small moments of sereneness. They are absolutely gorgeous photographs of the continent's splendor and magnificence which are also meant to be ironic, revealing the great distances the two men are forced to travel.
Made with such impressive detail and boldness in the panoramic shots, 'The Dead' is a terrifically satisfying zombie feature, filled with much apprehension and smarts. The production design plays a significant role in the film's overall enjoyment, entirely shot on location in western Africa. That small change in locale, which makes it unique from other movies set in the city or rural areas, greatly attributes to its originality and chilling atmosphere. It's interesting to watch how the Ford brothers stray from the mold and standard expectations of the genre while not exactly attempting to reinvent the wheel. These zombies are frightening because there is at least a small trace of realism involved, much like in Romero's films. The living dead are reanimated corpses that continue to rot. So they shouldn't run. The slow walkers are scarier because they outnumber us.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Dead' comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Anchor Bay Entertainment in the UK. Housed inside the slighter thicker blue keepcase is a Region B locked, BD25 disc, which goes straight to the main menu with full-motion clips and music.
Debuting with a strong and often stunning AVC-encoded transfer, 'The Dead' is possibly one of the loveliest horror films to be released in ages.
Shot on location in Ghana and Burkina, the 1.78:1 picture frame takes advantage of the beautiful deserts and landscapes throughout western Africa. The color palette is richly saturated and vivid, especially in the primaries, ironically showing an abundance of life and energy. Facial complexions appear naturally and are highly revealing, particularly in close-up where viewers can see every bead of sweat, wrinkle and pore in the faces of actors. The image has a good deal of depth and very sharply defined. The smallest architectural details and imperfections in the homes of villagers are quite plain while scattered foliage and natural land formations are distinct and visible in the distance.
The video does come with a few, very noticeable issues, which keep it from being a knockout. Although blacks are fairly deep and penetrating in much of the film's runtime, there are several moments when they suddenly go flat and nighttime scenes are plagued by mosquito noise. The latter of which is weirdly inconsistent. Contrast is generally spot-on and incredibly brilliant, nicely reflecting the scorching heat of the African deserts. But there are times when it's apparent the levels are somewhat exaggerated and overdone, creating a distracting ringing effect and making the image appear as if artificially sharpened.
If one can overlook a few minor drawbacks, this high-def presentation can be rather terrific.
The Dolby TrueHD soundtrack fares a tad better with quite a bit of activity and a nice airy openness to the design. Imaging is wide and engaging with good acoustical details, providing the desert scenery with a sense of vast emptiness. Channel separation and movement across the soundstage is smooth and fluid while dynamic range maintains remarkable clarity. The screams of victims are clearly audible and sharp without any hint of distortion in the upper frequencies. Low bass is surprisingly healthy, giving each gunshot a weighty punch and force. The rears also add an attractive ambiance with discrete effects heard in the far distance. This is especially true of action sequence as gunfire and mayhem spreads throughout the sound system, enhancing the soundfield convincingly.
The only real issue of note is in the vocals. Though well-prioritized in the center of the screen, dialogue can at times come off much louder than the rest of the mix. There are moments when conversations sound canned or cheaply recorded, meaning flat and not perfectly in sync with the film. There's also a strange effect that occurs from time to time when vocals lightly bleed into the other speakers and appear to occupy a large space than it should. Overlooking those minor aspects, however, the lossless mix is fairly excellent and enjoyable.
Anchor Bay brings 'The Dead' to Blu-ray with a very small, unimpressive collection of supplements. Although presented in high definition, the segments are in poor shape and look no better than standard def.
From the Ford brothers, 'The Dead' is arguably one of the best zombie flicks we've seen in years, or at least one which die-hard fans can really sink their teeth into. Set in west Africa, the story is very simple as two men journey northward in search of family and a way out, but the immense beauty of the landscape is part of the film's enjoyment and play an ironic role in an ugly, violent tale of survival. The Blu-ray comes with a strong and satisfying audio/video presentation, but the bonus material is a great disappointment. Despite being region-locked, the overall package is a worthwhile purchase for devoted followers of the genre and those with the capabilities to watch discs from other regions.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.