The third feature film by the brothers Howard and Jon Ford is an unabashed throwback — fan service for horror buffs who long for the glory days of George Romero zombies. The dilapidated shamblers of The Dead dominate a post-apocalyptic African landscape ravaged first by war and again by a walking dead (of unspecified origin, natch) whose population is slowly overwhelming its still-living counterparts. Avoiding their bite is a full-time job for an American engineer (Ron Freeman) who was the sole survivor of a failed evacuation attempt that left him stranded on the barren West African countryside. Having liberated an old pickup truck, he connects with an African sergeant (Ghanaian actor Prince David Osei) who’s trudging toward a fortified military base where he believes his young son is living as a refugee from the dead. The two men forge an alliance and press northward together, conserving food, water and ammo as they head toward an uncertain salvation.
I was immediately impressed by the film’s organic, handmade quality. It was shot on 35mm, which is fast becoming the exception for budget-conscious indies, and suits its understated, low-budget mileu. But although early scenes depicting zombie action assert the directors’ horror bona fides — especially the startling special effects by Dan Rickard and zombie make-up by Max Van De Banks — they are borderline incoherent in their staging and editing. My heart sank. However, the film works up a kind of hypnotic power as the action slows down. As night turns to day and back into night again, the unfocused road trip takes on the hallucinated, half-vivid quality of a lucid dream. You get used to the sight of the slow-moving undead swaying against the film’s natural landscapes like half-imagined phantoms, and somehow that makes them more unnerving, these husks of human beings ever creeping slowly, ineluctably, as horror-movie zombies must, toward camera.
It helps, too, that almost nobody shoots in these environs. South Africa boasts a fairly well developed film industry, but The Dead was filmed almost entirely on location in and around the poverty-stricken villages of Burkina Faso and Ghana, which have no filmmaking infrastructure to speak of. If the under-documented settings benefit the Western audience’s sense of alienation, they also have the whiff of opportunism about them. To watch The Dead, with its generic Caucasian protagonist squaring off against scores of local extras decked out in full zombie regalia, is to contemplate the gulf separating the problems of first-world fright-filmmakers from the enormity of the challenge that still faces the African people. That’s almost certainly the deliberate subtext here, but I wonder at the film’s failure to put those images in any particular context as well as its mute acceptance of the notion that the white guy must be the hero of the piece. (Osei is in every way a more compelling screen presence than Freeman, and one suspects the film would have benefited greatly had it been overhauled to tell his story instead.) At any rate, The Dead’s African setting is highly evocative, but it raises questions about white privilege that the film doesn’t seem remotely equipped to deal with.