The Dead has a promising setting for a zombie movie, and the first few minutes lead one to assume that the film will be engagingly terse and tough. An African soldier (Prince David Oseia) goes AWOL to find his son whom he believes has escaped into the country somewhere following an undead uprising that’s rapidly bringing West Africa to its knees, while an American mercenary (Rob Freeman) survives an airplane crash nearby that forces him to trek across the sweltering zombie-infested terrain in the hopes of finding another way out so that he may return to his family in the States. The parallel is obvious: Both men are soldiers whose loyalties to country are compromised by loyalties to family, and so of course they soon meet and bond while battling the dead.
The Dead is a perfectly serviceable horror movie. The cinematography is beautiful and confident, vividly establishing the fascinatingly dangerous landscape with which the two men find themselves at odds; the action is quick and effective, punctuated with gore shots that are aesthetically satisfying without overpowering the rest of the story; and the lead performances by Oseia and Freeman, while not great, still manage to effectively undersell the obvious clichés that are inherent in any racially-mixed buddy movie that preaches tolerance. But The Dead ultimately doesn’t have much of a pulse, as it fails to transcend the banality of its inevitable theme.
The ironies of the white man having to face potential extinction in a country infamous for racially tinged violence are too neat; you can tell Howard J. and Jon Ford, who wrote and directed, are mostly interested in imparting a Very Special Message to their audience. But the great zombie movies, some of which are directed with considerably less polish than The Dead, are both literally and figuratively messy and volatile—metaphoric in a teasing, suggestive manner that just might linger in your nightmares. The aggressively earnest and humorless The Dead has none of the playful pitch-black humor of Dawn of the Dead (either version) or Shaun of the Dead—even the overrated 28 Days Later. The Ford brothers have said in interviews that their film is about hope, which is telling of their movie’s problem: The Dead is more preoccupied with Message than drama, which undermines the threat of chaos that drives any good horror movie.