I'm a zombie fan. Have been since well before it was cool. George Romero's Dawn of the Dead was the first time I can remember seeing a movie and thinking that horror could be used for more than just giving me nightmares, because after seeing that film, it was impossible to view brain-dead "consumers" at a mall the same way. In the years since, zombies have been used as symbols and metaphors in a variety of ways, and sometimes they've just acted as terrifying plot elements, but the best zombie movies have been frightening AND HAD SOMETHING TO SAY.
Such is "The Dead." It features the sort of shambling, shuffling old-school slow zombies that instill creeping dread most of the time, and sudden dread when they show up behind a door or some other place you weren't expecting them. What makes them remarkable is that they are African. I don't just mean black--race was an important element in the first really important zombie movie, Romero's "Night of the Living Dead." But seeing African men, women, and children in peril--as we often do on the news--and looking dead or near-dead--as we also often do--adds a layer of meaning to the story that would have been difficult to achieve in any other way. The warring factions among various tribes must now put down arms against each other, and pick up arms, together, against this new, inhuman menace.
Apart from the social implications of the story, the landscape adds immeasurably to the film's effectiveness and is astonishingly beautiful, even as it is forbidding. I told my girlfriend, who enjoyed the recent theatrical film "The Grey" very much, that "The Dead" is basically the same story, but with Africa standing in for Alaska, and zombies for wolves. I was only partly kidding. The way an amassing and usually unseen threat jeopardizes the survival of men cast together in an unlikely setting, fighting for survival from the elements, driven by existential and familial commitments, is similar for both movies.
But of course before I go too far comparing "The Dead" to much more accomplished films, it must be said that it is, at heart, a zombie movie, and the first job of any zombie movie--whatever else it might do--is to scare the bejeezus out of you and get you to keep the light on in the hall. Oh boy does "The Dead" do that. And not with mere gore, but with scenes of agonizing, slow-motion mounting danger. It's a long film, and it FEELS like a long film, but those scenes of rising menace make it feel even longer.
I look forward to the next Ford Brothers movie. They clearly know what they're doing, and they've produced a gem here, a minor classic of the sub-genre. I recommend "The Dead" in the same breath as Autumn, another zombie movie that I think rises above the usual mediocre offerings of cheap independent productions.