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
Starz/Anchor Bay Entertainment brings 'The Dead' to Blu-ray on a Region A locked, BD25 disc inside a blue eco-case. At startup, viewers are taken straight to the main menu with full-motion clips and music.
The zombie road-movie from the Ford brothers finally hits U.S. shores with a strong and sometimes stunning 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.78:1). Compared to the U.K. release, the picture appears pretty much identical with that artificially sharpened look often achieved with HD digital cameras. This is usually the result of poor contrast balance where for the majority of the movie's runtime, the image is spot-on and brilliant. At other times, things seem overblown with many whites running a tad hot, which can cause a bit of ringing around objects or very light posterization in the sky. This can also affect black levels, looking fairly deep and true in daylight exteriors, but somewhat muddy and bland in nighttime scenes while also creating some mosquito noise.
For the most part, the video is first-rate, nicely reproducing the lovely photography of the deserts in Ghana and Burkina. With rather excellent clarity and resolution of the vast landscapes, the transfer shows lots of appreciable fine object detailing, from the rust on the small pickup and the bloody gashes on people to blades of grass and minor imperfections on the homes of villagers. Skin tones display a healthy complexion with lifelike textures while natural rock formations are distinct and plainly visible in the distance. The picture also comes with strong saturation levels in the colors. The primaries especially are bold and energetic, giving the movie an ironic tone.
Coming from the same studio that unleashed 'The Dead' in the U.K., I expected the audio to match that release, but somehow, this Dolby TrueHD manages to sound just a tad better. Perhaps, someone took the time to clean it up a bit, but whatever the reason, I actually enjoyed the high-rez track more this time around.
The majority of the lossless mix remains in the front soundstage, spreading across all channels evenly. There's an attractive openness in the design which makes the desert scenery that more vast and empty. Acoustical details are plain with good movement and balance between the speakers. Dialogue is well-prioritized and nicely centered in the middle of the screen, which was a minor drawback in the previous version. Dynamic range is surprisingly extensive, giving the track great presence and delivering screams in the distance with good clarity. Low bass is healthy and responsive, providing gunshots some force without feeling exaggerated. It also furnishes the haunting score of Imran Ahmad a wonderful presence. Rear activity is not always consistent, but a few discrete effects expand the soundfield convincingly and the original music also bleeds into the back, nicely enveloping listeners.
For this Blu-ray edition of 'The Dead,' Anchor Bay has provided a small but decent set of special features that are unique to U.S. audiences.
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 edition arrives with strong picture quality and slightly better audio. A couple of new supplements sets this package apart from its U.K. counterpart, but remains a bit of a disappointment. All in all, devoted followers of the zombie genre will be happy with the purchase, and others should give it a rent.
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.