What really sets The Dead apart from just about every other zombie movie out there is its drastic shift in setting. Rather than casting the most ordinary of sights in a more horrific light, the Ford Brothers lugged their cameras from Great Britain down to the African desert. The cold, digital look that's become such a mainstay in independent horror makes way for atmospheric 35mm photography. Instead of yet another abandoned supermarket with the fluourescent lights overhead ominously flickering, you get...well, this:
That makes more of a difference than you might think. The Dead would be a better-than-average zombie movie in any event, but its dramatic change of scenery elevates it into something that feels truly special.
Some sort of plague has started to wrap its fingers around the throat of Africa. What military forces are left find themselves completely overwhelmed by legions of the undead. Village after village is devoured, and with each attack the number of walking corpses continue to swell. Any hope of containing the threat or even trying to help has long since been abandoned, and
Stripped down to bare metal, the premise for The Dead is about as standard issue as it gets: mysterious plague, armies of the undead, a couple of very different survivors banding together, a search for a long lost loved one, a distant military stronghold where all the survivors are supposedly holed up, a hunt for some sort of a way out... In lesser hands, this could've been an aggressively routine zombie flick, but the Ford Brothers elevate it into something far more remarkable. Setting the story in Africa is, again, a very inspired choice. Desolate yet strikingly beautiful, this is a case where the film's setting is very much a character in its own right. There are no living, breathing villains, breaking away from one of Romero's favorite tropes. On the other hand, the punishing landscape and searing heat prove to be every bit as much of a threat as the walking dead. The zombies themselves are
It's chilling just how inescapable the undead really are. With as spread out as this desertland is, the threat is rarely overwhelming all at once, but there are just about always five or six zombies shambling around in view. They're dead silent too, and the film ekes quite a bit of tension out of letting the audience know that a zombie is slowly shambling towards its unknowing prey. The makeup effects throughout The Dead are impressive, preferring to keep everything practical whenever possible. It's gruesome and visceral without feeling as if it's pandering to gorehounds. As deeply unfortunate as it is that there are so many amputees throughout Ghana and Burkina Faso for the filmmakers to cast as dismembered corpses, that lends The Dead an enthralling sense of authenticity. There's something so...human, strong, and sincere about those African characters that do have a pulse. Written and performed with a great deal of respect, they never settle into comfortable stereotypes or double-underlined moral messages. There's certainly a social and political undercurrent here, but The Dead never bludgeons viewers over the head with it. The Ford Brothers know precisely what kind of zombie movie they want to make, never cutting away to any distant subplots, crafting a story with minimal dialogue, and building an astonishing amount of tension and suspense. Even when I knew a jumpscare was right around the next bend or that Murphy would somehow pull off another escape at the last possible second, The Dead's grip on me never relented.
Honestly, I'm left with very little to criticize. There are scattered moments when the seams in the low-budget production show, and every once in a while, Richard Johnson would flash some off-kilter expression that'd pull me out of the movie. Such concerns are very easily overlooked, though. The Dead is one of the most remarkable zombie movies I've come across in ages, and it's essential viewing for anyone who's been waiting to see new life be breathed into an increasingly tired subgenre. Highly Recommended.
The Dead's 35mm photography has an intriguingly timeless look to it, as if it could've been lensed any time between 1985 and last Thursday. I think that ultimately works in the movie's favor, although high definition eye candy it's not so much. The sunbaked palette is limited but is rendered flawlessly. Definition and detail are reasonably strong when the camera's closed in fairly tightly, but more distant shots are somewhat softer than I'm used to seeing, especially for such a recent production. There's something about the overall look that just seems a little...off to me. The coarse, gritty texture reads a bit more like video noise to my eyes than film grain, it seems like there's some mild edge enhancement at times, and I can't shake the sense that The Dead was transferred with older telecine gear that doesn't do the movie its full justice. Black levels are substantial, although this film stock really struggles with the underlit photography in the dead of night. Despite its missteps, I really like the look of The Dead. It's certainly a marked step up over anything DVD could deliver, but because it doesn't have the most traditional of presentations, some viewers may still want to keep their expectations in check.
The Dead shambles onto a single-layer Blu-ray disc, and its 1.78:1 presentation has been encoded with AVC.
The Dead is an intensely atmospheric film with a soundtrack to match. Its 16-bit, 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio does a remarkable job establishing a sense of place, be it from howling winds in the barren desert or gutteral screams during the undead feeding frenzies. The sound design knows when to use silence to the greatest effect, and The Dead often takes advantage of the multichannel setup to heighten the tension when an attack is looming. Bass
There are no dubs or alternate mixes. Subtitles are limited to English (SDH) and Spanish.
It looks as if the UK release has a couple of interviews that didn't find their way onto this Blu-ray disc, although the American BD makes up for it with a couple of exclusives all its own.
The Final Word
The Dead isn't some spastic gutmuncher with a power metal soundtrack. It's a throwback in the best possible way, feeling as if it's something Romero might have helmed at his peak. The Dead is an entrancingly atmospheric zombie movie, one that's often quiet and contemplative, and yet it still delivers the visceral thrills that genre completists demand. I watch pretty much every zombie movie that comes down the pike, and I'm still struggling to think of the last one that had anywhere near as much of an impact on me as The Dead. A deeply rewarding discovery on Blu-ray and very Highly Recommended.