With nary a trace of snark, satire or self-consciousness, Brit sibling filmmakers Howard J. and Jon Ford breathe some fresh life into zombie-thriller tropes in “The Dead,” a small-budget indie that could grab attention through fests and limited theatrical distribution before attracting an enthusiastic following in ancillary. Basically an extended trek through a West African wilderness infested with flesh-eating undead, the pic may unsettle some viewers with images of a white American protagonist repeatedly warding off attacks by black African monsters. But the racially charged subtext actually serves to enhance this smart and surprisingly subdued apocalyptic melodrama.
Opening scenes efficiently establish the premise and, not incidentally, demonstrate how inventively the Ford brothers can stretch their obviously limited resources. Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman), a U.S. Navy officer trained as an engineer, is the sole survivor when a plane transporting evacuees from a zombie-plagued African locale crashes off the continent’s western coast. As he makes his way cross-country, he allies himself with Sgt. Daniel Dembele (popular Ghanaian thesp Prince David Osei), an African army officer desperately searching for his young son.
“The Dead” never attempts to fully explain the outbreak of zombification, though it appears to be a worldwide plague triggered by ill-fated military experiments in chemical weaponry. In West Africa, the pic indicates, the afflicted are mostly impoverished villagers who, even under the best of circumstances, receive little medical or military aid.
And while it’s not specified just how long zombie sightings have been common occurrences, the responses by Murphy and Dembele suggest they’re long past being terrified anymore by the slow-shuffling flesh-eaters, and simply view them as dangerous predators to be routinely avoided.
As zombie thrillers go, “The Dead” is several watts short of being truly shocking. Despite some aptly grisly makeup effects, the pic never quite rises to the level of pulse-pounding excitement. But it does sustain interest and generate suspense during the extended trek across an inhospitable terrain captured in all its sun-baked desolation by Jon Ford’s ace lensing. (Pic was filmed on location in Burkina Faso and Ghana.) And the two well-cast lead actors give straightforward, persuasive performances that increase the overall sense of anxious foreboding and mounting despair.
Along with the enigmatic prologue, the final scenes come off as attempts to elevate “The Dead” to a kind of mythos, hinting that at least one character might evolve into a living legend on the order of Mel Gibson’s “Mad Max” figure. Because of that, unfortunately, the ending is a letdown. If there’s going to be a payoff for the setup, auds will have to wait for a sequel to see what it might be.