What is it about the idea of making a zombie movie that budding film directors find so attractive? Do they rub their hands together with glee at the thought of putting their friends in ash-gray makeup to march across the screen? Is it simple hero worship -- the desire to follow in the shambling footsteps of Romero and Raimi? Are these young auteurs savvy enough to know that zombie movies hold an endless attraction for gore fans (and therefore, film distributors)? Or is it simple interest in the evolving mythology of the modern zombie, a creature whose nature went practically unexplored (or uninvented) until the late Twentieth Century?
Whatever the reasons, zombie movies have choked the shelves of video stores for as long as video stores have existed. Take a look at the horror section of any video megamart and you'll find that shuffling revenants are second only to slashers in the pecking order of horror baddies, beating out mummies, werewolves, witches, and even leather-bikini-clad vampire babes for rental outlet real estate. Fans never seem to tire of the meme of reanimated corpses that feast upon the flesh of the living, and independent film distributors are happy to supply them with as many variations on the theme as low-budget directors can pump out. Even the Hong Kong horror film industry, which tends to focus more on supernatural demons and monsters, has produced a zombie movie or two.
(They are Australian zombies,
Undead brings us the zombie flick from an Australian perspective. This is not to say that it comes up with anything particularly new, but there are a number of heavy accents through which non-Australian audiences will need to wade and a certain amount of culture shock to absorb. Once the brain-devouring scenes begin, the picture rather unfortunately degenerates into an hour-long recreation of the worst shouting matches from previous zombie flicks and homage after homage to previous horror and science fiction films.
The small town of Berkeley is known for two things: fishing, and a local man who claims to have been abducted by aliens -- while fishing. René (Felicity Mason) won last year's coveted "Berkeley Catch of the Day" beauty crown, but when the family farm is repossessed by the bank she decides to depart with her fishy tail between her legs. René's luck holds true to form, however: the day she decides to leave is the same day meteorites fall on Berkeley, causing the recently dead to come back to life.
So, this country was founded
by violent criminals, was it?
After a particularly gooey encounter with some reanimated motorists, René's life is saved by Marion (Mungo McKay), a local man who became a pariah after he told people he was attacked by zombie fish and abducted by aliens. In the meantime Marion has cultivated his "Man with No Name" persona and an intense interest in firearms. As a burning rain falls and and lights stab down from the sky to suck animals into the ether Marion and René take refuge in Marion's house. Our heroes are soon joined by two other couples: Wayne (Rob Jenkins) and Sallyanne (Lisa Cunningham), an expecting couple who already have an unfriendly relationship with René; and a pair of partnered cops, Harrison (Dirk Hunter) and Molly (Emma Randall), who have an unfriendly relationship with the rest of humanity. After the requisite gun-pointing scenes and "I'm the law here" lines of dialogue, the zombies attack the house en masse and everyone hides in Marion's bomb shelter basement.
It was about here that the
Duke boys realized that
something was wrong.
It's this part of the movie that is particularly lamentable as all the characters yell at each other for little reason. Harrison wants to be in charge, and Sallyanne resents René for winning the Fish Queen title. It's a shame that "the scene where all the characters bicker as society collapses" has become such a cliché because it's never particularly entertaining. It worked in Night of the Living Dead (1968) because George Romero carefully built the conflicts up over the course of the movie and used them to build suspense. In Undead the conflicts are instantaneous and shrill and the plot has to stop dead while everyone yells at each other.
Another definite flaw in Undead is Marion himself. As written, we imagine he's supposed to be a combination of Clint Eastwood and Bruce Campbell, with his laconic attitude and penchant for improvised weaponry. (It's a bit of a running gag that no matter how many times Marion must discard his weaponry, he always manages to produce more firearms.) Unfortunately Mungo McKay is too short to be imposing and has soft, rounded features beneath his beard and hat. We suspect that his voice was also wrong for the part, since it sounds like all of his dialogue has been dubbed (or at least altered) to sound deeper and more resonant. Besides, pilgrims, how much of a badass can a guy named "Marion" be? It was likely intended to be ironic, but it doesn't quite work, particularly after certain facts are revealed concerning his role in the imminent alien invasion.
Close Encounters 4 through 7.
Eventually the arguing stops and all the characters in the film make a run out of town, only to run smack into a mysterious wall -- not to mention a smorgasbord of references to other, better movies. The wall itself is reminiscent of Stephen King's story "The Mist" and the film The Slime People (1963), but the pop culture callbacks don't end there. Observant viewers will find nods to all the relevant zombie flicks as well as science fiction classics like The Thing, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and even E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. Distracting? A bit, but at least it gives you something to do once you've figured out the plot's "twist."
Undead has many of the hallmarks you'd expect from a breakout indie zombie flick: remarkably good photography, above-average makeup and effects, and a competent cast. Unfortunately, other than a few tongue-in-cheek moments and an interesting development in the third act, it doesn't really contribute anything new to the genre. Consider it a refinement of the zombie movie: there's plenty of stomp-n-chomp action for gore fans, but with all that recycled material, Undead is unlikely to spawn any flesh-feasting imitators of its own.