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