Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Dead: To Dust We Will Return

Zombies are mostly a defanged nerd-culture joke now, and I'm generally over in the corner with copies of Night of the Living Dead and World War Z and 28 Days Later, sulking. But I've started thinking about the contexts in which most zombie stories are set. Basically, the modern zombie story is an urban one, where the zombies are actively predatory and there's a lot of interpersonal conflict. After a certain point, it's less about the zombies than it is about what zombies mean for civilization, relationships, society. This is a function of the urban setting - supplies and shelter are pretty accessible, so once the protagonists have set up their little fortress, the zombies start to become window dressing. What happens when you strip all of that away, all of the first-world resources that mean we have the luxury of interpersonal drama in the face of a plague of walking dead?

The Dead got me thinking about all of this.

The movie opens on a desert landscape of blue and gold, interrupted only by a lone figure swathed in black. He makes his way across the dunes, AK-47 on his back. He could be the hero in some Lawrence of Arabia-style badass war movie, but for the figure who captures his notice - an African man, blank-eyed, managing to hobble along on one really, really broken leg. He's too badly wounded to be alive, and yet he walks. Just the two of them against the desert sun. There's no sense of threat or danger - the man in black just walks around him, out of reach. This is happening now, most of the rest of the movie is an extended flashback to how the man in black ended up here.

The setting is Africa, and the dead walk. The dead walk, and consume the flesh of the living. The man in black is an engineer named Brian, and he is the sole survivor of the last evac flight out. He told the pilots that the plane wasn't ready, but they took off anyway. It crashed in the ocean, and Brian washed ashore. He heads inland. Meanwhile, some time before, it is nighttime and a village is burning. The dead move through the village, falling onto the inhabitants and chewing hunks of their flesh. There's nothing predatory about it, it's just blunt, implacable need. A soldier named Daniel arrives home too late, finding his wife dead and his son missing. The rest of The Dead is the story of how Brian and Daniel meet, and their journey north - Brian to find a plane out, Daniel to find his son.

The Dead is pretty much the antithesis of the modern zombie movie. It is stripped down, stark, and quiet. There's barely any dialogue. These are two men driven by necessity, by their individual destinations and what it will take to live long enough to get there. In the African bush, nothing can be taken for granted - transportation, food, ammunition, fuel, safety - none of it is guaranteed, and the dead are always there. They're in the distance, they come out of the long grass, they're just standing there, and although they're easy enough to outrun, they never get tired. That's something I think a lot of modern treatments of zombies forget - what makes them scary is that they justkeepcoming. Zombies do not sleep, zombies do not retreat and regroup. Zombies just walk and walk and walk, and long after you've run out of breath and ammo and food and water, they're still walking, closer and closer to you. This is a movie that actually manages to make changing a tire into something tense, and the discovery of a working water supply into a major victory.

And that's what I think The Dead does right - it provides a correction of perspective. Brian and Daniel have their differences, and they don't always get along, but instead of being the biggest threat to the group, it's almost beside the point. It doesn't matter whether they like each other or not, because all of that is irrelevant in the face of the threats before them - the walking dead and the desert, both silent and uncaring. You can reason with neither, you cannot hope for mercy, so you stay alive instead. Talking is beside the point, sharing feelings is beside the point. All of that goes out the window when what little safety there was in the world is completely gone.

And the dead are always there. They're in the background, they're walking slowly into focus, unhurried. The steady march of entropy made flesh. The problem is not that you don't get along with the other survivors or that one of them is going on a power trip like on some bullshit reality show, the problem is that the dead are fucking walking and they are going to eat you and you cannot outwit them or outrun them forever. In a land where life is hard, you learn very quickly what's important and what isn't. This is what made the gritty nihilism of Night of the Living Dead so powerful. It's not so much that they're going to end your life, it's that they never stop.

That's not to say that this movie is flawless - I was sort of disappointed in the last act, where the mood the rest of the movie has built sort of goes out the window and way too much happens in the last 10 minutes, not giving any of it time to breathe, but as a response to what the modern zombie has become, it speaks little, but says much.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Unavailable on Netflix

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