Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Things Fall Apart

I have to admit that I like the idea of setting the zombie apocalypse in Africa. Africa, after all, is where the worst of the AIDS plague has hit, and it has so few reliable institutions that the spread of the zombie would be rapid and terrifying. So it stands to reason that I should like The Dead (2010, directed by Howard J. and Jonathan Ford), which postulates just such an apocalypse. And for a while, I was digging it. The first forty minutes of the movie are some of the finest examples of the zombie movie I've seen in a while. It starts at a dead run, and takes off like a shot. But as the movie slowed down a bit toward the end, I started to become a little bit uncomfortable with it. Without the frenetic terror of its initial scenes, the movie let me think a bit too much about the meaning of the images on screen. I didn't like my conclusions.

The Dead has dual heroes. One is Sgt. Daniel Dembele, an African soldier who goes AWOL to find his son as the zombie apocalypse reaches a fever pitch. The other is Lt. Brian Murphy, an American military engineer whose plane out of the hot zone has crashed. He wants to find another way out so he can return to his family. The two men chart an intersecting course, and soon, they're both hoofing it across the African plains together, dodging zombies all the way. Their goal is a military base where the American hopes to find a plane he can fix.

The first part of this movie, as I say, is sharp. The zombie massacre scenes have a bit of extra punch than comparable scenes in American zombie movies if one connects them to the real life genocides that are still ongoing in Africa. Not that the movie makes this point itself; it's the setting itself that makes it. In retrospect, I may be buying in to a form of cinematic exoticism, but it's unavoidable. The way the beginning of The Dead is filmed, too, has an urgent, frenzied quality. It "gets" the moment when the machine stops, when the infrastructure (what there is of it in Africa) breaks down. It provides the zombie gut munching without looking like any other zombie movie I've seen. At this late date, this is something of a surprise. The early part of the movie also features a harrowing plane crash sequence, followed by a zombie attack on a beach that shows that even slow moving zombies are a threat when the environment dictates. When the movie slows down in the second half, the setting tends to dominate. The bleak landscapes against which our heroes journey have some of the existential dread of the landscapes in a spaghetti western.

The main trouble I have with this movie is that it tends to fall into a colonial narrative. The fact that the hero of the piece is a white man--and not a South African white man, but an American--and the fact that he ends up shouldering the burden of rescuing his black counterpart's family has vague echoes of the white man's burden. By centering on this character, this becomes less about Africa and more about using Africa as a kind of id for its white hero. This makes me a little uncomfortable. It makes me a LOT uncomfortable that this character takes on the burden of a messiah at the end, as the filmmakers try against the mainstream of their own story to impart a hopeful ending. Ultimately, I wish the filmmakers had had the wit and the balls to make a different choice when it comes down to Dembele or Murphy as the hero that makes it to the end. The fact that it's the black guy who sacrifices himself to save the white guy has a deep political dimension relative to the setting of the film over and above the fact that it's a horror cliche. The black guy always gets it in horror movies, after all, but beyond that, what would the movie be saying about hope--its ostensible theme--if it allowed Africa itself a semblance of that hope and a semblance of self-determination? Mind you, you could argue that Murphy's eventual meeting with Dembele's son at the end of the movie provides just that kind of hope, but it's still a hope predicated on a leg up from a white colonial figure.

It's certainly possible to enjoy the movie as a horror movie without thinking about all of this. It works just fine as a standard zombie movie. It's more interesting as a movie than most zombies movies. But the baggage of colonialism is kind of like the chains borne by Marley's ghost. We've forged these chains ourselves and now we have to carry them with us.

Current tally: 32 films

First time viewings: 29


Darius Whiteplume said...

Apologizing for the long comment up front.

One thing that could be extremely ugly in an Africa based zombie film is the way some governments have treated the only comparably spread virus in reality, Ebola. I have not read it in in years, but in Richard Preston's "The Hot Zone" he talks about villages with an Ebola outbreak and the local military simply quarantined the village off, letting no one out, nor any aid in. Since Ebola spreads so quickly, and kills so rapidly, segregating the population does limit the disease's spread, but also assure the death of close to 95% of the populace. If not all. I would imagine the survivors are dealt with, "just in case." Of course with zombies, you don't just drop dead, but I can see extermination efforts taking a similar tack. Isolate, eradicate.

The white/black hero thing can still be very difficult. Often when the non-standard course is taken it is extremely obvious and comes off a bit insincere. I like to think we are getting to a place where race and role are not necessarily bound to one another. One of the actresses from "The Muthers" was talking about how the characters in that film did not have to be black, they just happened to be black. Certainly the filmmakers were going for the Blaxploitation market, but I assume (without having seen it) that she was right. It was perhaps either Jeannie Bell or Jayne Kennedy in the semi-awesome documentary "Machete Maidens Unleashed" (streams on Netflix).

Renee said...

Funny how I didn't really connect the "white savior" story to this as we were watching it. And I went in fully conscious of the fact that this was going to be Africa filtered through the lens of a couple of white British guys, so I was on the lookout for that. But my focus drifted more to the violence, and who was perpetrating it against whom, and also towards how the environment was used (they were definitely pushing the "exoticness" of the setting to create a sense of unfamiliarity, which is channeled through the white viewpoint character*) and somehow the rest just sort of fell be the wayside for me. Probably didn't help that I was dead exhausted by the time we got around to watching it.

Thinking about it now though, even if different choices had been made, I wonder how successful it would have been in executing's obviously not impossible for the Fords to have told the kind of story you suggest here, but I'm always skeptical when one group tries to take on a narrative outside their own lived experience. I mean, I don't know the Fords at all, but I think their protagonist is more representative of them than any other choice they could have made. That's not really a defense of what does appear on screen, but rather makes me question whether they were the right people to make this particular film.

Tonally, The Dead hits the buttons I like in a zombie movie. It conveys a sense of dread and hopelessness. And I can't deny that my unfamiliarity with the African setting, combined with my fairly typical USian understanding of Africa, contributed to that. But I do wonder what an African zombie film made by someone who was less of an outsider would have looked like.

* In writing this, I started to question whether I was just making vast presumptions about the Ford bros. Turns out I'm not; they specifically say they chose Africa both for its beauty and because it was an exotic location most of the audience would be unfamiliar with, and their protagonist because they really wanted to push the "fish out of water" story. Link provided below. I don't think these things are totally invalid in a horror movie - rather, I think exploring the notion of why we find other places and other humans scary to be totally worthwhile - but I'm not sure The Dead achieved any useful commentary in that way. I'm still thinking about it, and I may need to watch the film again (I was really was tired when I watched this).