It Could Have Been a Masterpiece: The Dead by the Ford Brothers

I wanted to love this movie.  I remember watching the trailer and practically salivating over the gorgeous West African scenery, the magnificent makeup and special effects and the potential for substantive commentary on modern Africa and its many woes.  Unfortunately, a weak script put this film in the awkward position of exploiting the very issues on which it is trying to comment.  (You can see the official trailer here.)

Written and directed by brothers Howard J. Ford and Jon Ford, The Dead was filmed on location in Burkina Faso and Ghana, two regions that have, over the last few decades, seen plague and famine and countless acts of racial atrocity under the guise of civil war.  The setup feels perfect for a zombie film.  Plague makes for a logical cause for the outbreak.  Famine and starvation are mirrored in the population eating itself.  And death, as the great leveler, obfuscates the divisions of tribal and racial differences.  The Dead tries to address all of these points, but sabotages itself with a lackluster storyline.

Lt. Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman) has just survived a plane crash and sets out across the sunbaked, unforgiving landscape of the Ivory Coast in the hopes of reaching safety and reuniting with his family back home.  At the same time, Sgt. Daniel Dembele (Prince David Osei) has broken away from his regiment to find his son.  These two very different men are forced to team up and help one another on their quests.

And therein lies the problem, I think.  In order to properly carry through on its promise of addressing West Africa’s many problems, the story needed more than a few token glimpses into village culture.  There were a few humanizing moments, especially between Sgt. Dembele and his grandmother, and between Murphy and the mother hoisting her newborn on him, but not even those scenes dug deep enough.  If a zombie is going to be effective as a metaphor it has to have established corollaries in the story.  Shawn of the Dead did this beautifully through a mirrored plot.  The first half of the film established the sense of aimless frustration and disenfranchisement of Britain’s youth, and then the second half of the film mirrored the events of the first half, but with zombies.  The point that we are all basically zombies already lands with perfect clarity.  The Dead could have been such a powerful statement on man’s cruelty to his fellow man, or a brilliant indictment of colonialism, or a call to arms against a continent starving to death, but it just didn’t reach that level of sophistication.

What we get instead is a rather pedestrian buddy/road trip story.  Perhaps that would have been enough of a frame to bring out the issues the film seems to want to tackle, but the script wasn’t even up to telling much of buddy movie.  Murphy and Dembele hardly speak at all during their time together, and when they do, the setups are obvious and clearly forced.

But the film, despite its weak storytelling, does have its positives.  The scenery, filmed in grainy 35 mm, seems to be on fire through most of the movie.  It’s stunningly beautiful, and goes further toward establishing Murphy’s exhaustion than Freeman’s acting.

Also, the zombies are truly frightening.  The faintly glowing eyes and legion of broken and mangled bodies make for some excellent scenes, and there are enough exploding heads and severed limbs and zombie feasting scenes to make most zombie fans feel right at home.

My score: 6 out of 10.

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