Since George Romero’s long-awaited Land of the Dead turned out to be a letdown, we’ll have to find our zombie-movie solace elsewhere. Thankfully, Romero has been making movies for so long that not only has he inspired others to follow in his footsteps, but those others have begotten others still. Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson are notable disciples, but now that they’ve moved on to theoretically higher aspirations (though many of us will take Evil Dead 2 and Dead Alive over Spider-Man 2 and Lord of the Rings any day), we must look to the next generation. Danny Boyle and 28 Days Later. Edgar Wright and Shaun of the Dead. Conor McMahon and Dead Meat. And now, from Peter Jackson’s part of the world, the Spierig brothers and Undead.
Set in the small town of Berkeley, Australia, Undead initially seems like a pretty serious and melancholy movie, shot with cold blue and brown filters. Rene (Felicity Mason) is an ex-beauty queen, former “Miss Catch of the Day,” who only entered the contest for the money and has since lost most of it to debts inherited from her parents. The town itself seems fairly dull, though the main fruit and vegetable store is amusingly named “Elvis Parsley’s Grapelands” (“produce fit for a king”).
Things liven up considerably when a shower of meteors hits, blowing gaping holes through people who then revive as snarling, white-contact-lens-wearing members of the living dead. And unlike the rather pitiful “Big Boy” in Land of the Dead, they don’t simply go “Raargh!” like children pretending to be King Kong. These zombies roar like lions in full-on Dolby sound.
Zombies alone would be bad enough, but there’s also a sudden downpour of acid rain. And beams of light coming from the sky that occasionally levitate items upward into who knows where. Oh, and also some mysterious hooded figures who appear to be made entirely of bright light, and are probably from another planet. It’s also worthy of note that Undead may well be the first movie to feature zombie fish.
Initially, things play like Jackson’s Dead Alive, with mutilations played for laughs and lines of dialogue like one policeman’s reaction to the acid rain and teleportation beams: “Well, I’m no weather girl, but I’m sure this kinda thing happens all the time!” Rene manages to make it to the house of a nutjob redneck survivalist (yes, they have those in other countries too) named Marion, possibly in honor of Marion “John Wayne” Morrison, and played by a chap named Mungo McKay, who isn’t a very good actor but is named “Mungo,” which counts for a lot.
Marion has a talent for pulling two pistols out of various hidden pockets in his overalls, splaying his arms out in a crucifixion pose, and shooting in two directions at once; he has also developed a triple shotgun that fires three parallel blasts at once. This is generally pretty effective against the walking dead, only it takes everyone a long time to figure out Zombie Rule No. 1, which everyone in the audience probably knows by now: You have to shoot them in the head, or else they won’t stay down. Zombie Rule No. 2, of course, is that if you get bitten, you become one. It takes a while for everyone to figure this out too. (Don’t any of these people play video games, or watch movies, like, ever?)
The writer-directors, Peter and Michael Spierig, certainly do. There’s a moment when Rene is outside a door trying to get through, and the key, which happens to be in a convenient nearby location, glistens just enough so she can see it. The way this discovery is filmed is an unmistakable homage to the zombie-infested Resident Evil games, in which anything glistening within a particular area is always worth picking up.
The big problem with Undead is its inconsistent tone. Initially artsy, then campy, then tense, it would have worked better if the Spierig brothers had kept everything serious and let the inherent absurdism of zombie attacks speak for itself without additional ironic comment. The plot keeps you guessing and is constantly throwing the characters off track; only the camp factor keeps you from caring quite as much as you should. Granted, some of the special effects are cheesy and the humor may be a way of deflecting that, but purity of vision can overcome such things; notice that a majority of fans still prefer the original theatrical cuts of the Star Wars movies over the “Special Editions” that were jazzed up with digital doodads.
Still, the Spierigs score at least one phenomenal visual concept near movie’s end that isn’t like anything I’ve seen before on film (the urge to spoil is tempting … but no). Like so many horror movies, the setup for a sequel is rather blatant. If one comes, a little more seriousness from the brothers could lead to something truly scary.