Berkeley, Australia. A quiet, seaside town. Rene (Felicity Mason), the ostensible central character, has lost her childhood home to foreclosure by the local bank. Unable to pay the mortgage, even after winning a local beauty contest. Driving out of town for what she assumes will be the last time, she, along with the rest of the town, witnesses a spectacular meteor shower. This is no ordinary meteor shower, however. The meteorites carry a plague. Contact leads to instant infection. Instant infection leads to an instantaneous transformation into the hungry undead. Rene, smarter than the average townsperson, flees, eventually finding herself at a farmhouse owned by the local outcast, Marion (Mungo McKay), a bearded, hirsute, overall-wearing gun fetishist (he also favors spurs on his boots and a floppy, oversized hat to match his oversized appearance). His ample supply of firearms, of course, comes in handy as the slow-moving hordes of the undead make their way to and into the farmhouse.
Before long, Rene and Marion are joined by another, desperate group of survivors, led by Constable Harrison (Dirk Hunter). Refuge in Marion's underground bunker proves to be a literal dead end. Luckily (or not, depending on your perspective), a very pregnant woman in the throes of childbirth spurs the survivors into action. Breaking out (after they've fought their way in), the survivors leave the safety of the underground bunker. From there, Undead takes an extended detour into a completely different genre (and sub-genre), science fiction/alien invasion territory. The survivors also discover that their town has been surrounded by a giant wall of indeterminate origin. And then there's the acid rain that keeps falling, burning their skin.
While the Spierig Brothers have an engaging, even uplifting (and therefore, marketable) backstory, ultimately audiences will have to judge Undead on its own. How does it measure up to other films from the genre, other films that were the obvious inspirations for the Spierig Brothers? Films such as Peter Jackson's Dead Alive, Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy, George A. Romero's Dead trilogy, or Dan O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead? The splatter humor owes less to Romero's more serious-minded films than to Raimi and Jackson, but Undead ultimately proves to be an unsatisfactory viewing experience.
It certainly wasn't the makeup or the special effects. In both cases, the gore and effects were remarkably accomplished, especially given the budget limitations (with only the occasional dodgy effect). Two effects sequences in particular were top-notch: a set of torsoless legs ambling down a country road, looking for their other half, and an extended sequence that takes the survivors above the clouds of their sleepy, little town. These effects were as good as anything you're likely to see from a mainstream Hollywood film. Add a couple of splatstick moments, including one involving a shovel and a none-too-bright zombie, and most genre fans will be pleased (and entertained). What about the performances, you might ask? Given the Spierig Brothers relative inexperience, not to mention limited budget, audiences show go into Undead fully expecting less-than-stellar performances, which range from the stiff, to the overbroad to the passable. What about the dialogue in the Spierig Brothers' first effort? Functional, if clichéd, with the occasionally inspired line, most of them uttered by Marion. What about the characters then? I expected them to be stock, unoriginal, with each character's broad traits played out story wise with no surprise character twists to spin the plot in an unforeseen direction.
Where then did Undead slip from forgivable, low-budget, first-time effort to almost unwatchable? Undead was marketed as a zombie/splatterfest comedy, with built-in expectations of zombies, gore, and more zombie gore, with whatever explanation the filmmakers give for the plague of zombies offer being just credible enough for the audience to suspend their disbelief. The real problem happens midway through Undead, when instead of the typical isolated group of survivors making a heroic last stand, or attempting to locate a secure area, Undead downshifts into science-fiction/alien invasion territory (and its sense of humor never fully recovers). Add an unnecessary epilogue that stretches the movie an additional ten minutes, and you essentially have a scattershot horror/comedy/science fiction genre bender that tries hard, but never quite succeeds, in pleasing different genre to audiences.
Still, the Spierig Brothers deserve credit for both their ambition, and more importantly, their remarkable ability to complete a project with limited financial resources. Let's hope their writing skills improve with the size of their budget for the next film. Overall, Undead deserves a positive, if highly qualified recommendation, mostly for viewers interested in seeing (and supporting) a truly independent film production.
© Mel Valentin, 10th July, 2005
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