The unique selling point (can we call it that?) for John and Howard Ford's The Dead - the zombie apocalypse hits Africa - is both its biggest strength and greatest weakness. It's a gorgeous, visually distinctive, creepy little road movie that pays tribute to any number of classic genre influences with both a feverish, dreamlike mood and a solid, compelling story arc.
You have to admire the brothers, their cast and crew for struggling through a hellish experience to get The Dead out, and for how that ends up reflected in what appears on screen. But the same experience also appears to have weighed the film down, with a lack of depth and a plot that almost trails off into nothing come the final third.
No, it's nothing like the videogame Resident Evil 5. Blood Diamond this ain't, either - rather than the white man solving the black man's problems The Dead opens on reanimated corpses decimating the rural areas, with the last UN workers and Western military personnel fleeing in terror on a plane that isn't fit to fly.
As their flight goes down in the ocean and the only survivor Lt. Brian Murphy (veteran character actor Rob Bowman) struggles to shore, the best option left to him looks like the military base hundreds of miles to the north. Meanwhile, as the local military struggle to contain the zombies, Sgt. Daniel Dembele (Prince David Osei) decides he's had enough, ditching his post to look for his son. When the two men cross paths, will they be able to make the journey together?
It's a decent enough hook, backed up by a pacey opening with very little filler, some pleasingly physical effects work and a convincing nostalgic dread, as it were. The Fords have talked about how they see their debut feature as a tribute to classic seventies journey films as much as fulfilling their childhood dream of making a horror movie, and the relationship is immediately apparent. The brothers worked in advertising before this, and serve as their own DPs, shooting in a lush, heavy colour palette that makes The Dead look like some newly unearthed cult classic from the birth of the genre.
The whole thing has an incredible sense of place, a kind of old-school widescreen cinematic quality not a million miles from the brothers' more famous namesake. The effects may look as if they're gunning for that prime Italian tackiness but everything still has a weight to it that consistently impresses. You can practically feel the heat, the dust, the rattle of an ancient pickup as the two leads drive across the bush.
Bowman and Osei are largely no-nonsense, yet each still manages an admirable vulnerability - the suppressed panic of men who'd clearly rather be anywhere else than fighting off a ravenous horde, yet who know their only choice is to knuckle down and get the job done. The supporting cast are solid, with the extras surprisingly convincing given many were rural villagers so poor they'd never even seen a film before, let alone acted in one.
It's an even more laudable accomplishment given a nightmarish catalogue of real-world difficulties in production, where nearly everyone involved went down with some kind of tropical disease (Bowman himself was at one point apparently days from death, and filmed several scenes with full-blown malaria). Yet however difficult it is to criticise people who've put such a staggering amount of effort into their work, the fact remains The Dead is far from perfect.
Though the brothers generally treat their story with a fair degree of sensitivity, never patronising or exoticising anyone, other than the setting there's nothing that unique about it. The Dead pays tribute to the classics, but it lacks their social commentary, character detail or taste for pushing people's buttons. Nor does it mine the setting to any great extent - there's nothing that touches on politics beyond some brief commentary early on, and no real use of myth, legend, history or any emotional component beyond fairly basic one man against the world tropes.
Lots of people won't care, and it doesn't stop The Dead from being a very good film, but it could arguably have been that little bit more. Richard Stanley's cult masterpiece Dust Devil proves an African horror movie can have a spiritual, cerebral side - largely absent here - and still be a cracking genre entry. Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire's Johnny Mad Dog is far more terrifying and a much more potent commentary on the tensions giving rise to trouble spots across the continent.
Nonetheless, one can only hope what didn't kill the Ford brothers makes them stronger. It would be a crying shame if The Dead got passed over given the increasing apathy towards the zombie movie. Regardless of its flaws or its chequered history, it's still a beautiful piece of work, haunting, memorable and a fine debut from two talented directors, a film that definitely comes recommended.
(The Dead was screened as part of the 24th Leeds International Film Festival.)