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Movie Review: Undead (2003)

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After enjoying this year's Daybreakers, which to my surprise was a surprisingly mature and well made vampire picture, I decided to seek out Australian directors Peter and Michael Spierig’s previous film, their 2003 debut Undead. The film tells the story of a space-borne zombie plague ravaging the Aussie town of Berkeley and the handful of survivors who band together to try and make it out alive. Clocking in at 104 minutes, the film moves by at a fair clip and will satisfy die-hard fans of the zombie genre but will leave everyone else cold. The enthusiasm of first-time directors the Spierig Brothers is unmistakable but everything else misfires in a big way.

Upon its release the film failed to garner an audience, couldn’t recoup more than a fraction of its modest $1,000,000 budget, and scored a Seagal-worthy 30% on Rotten Tomatoes. The Spierig Brothers were so dispirited that they took their ball and went home, not producing any further work until Daybreakers six years later. While the brothers’ enthusiasm is evident in the madcap pace, handfuls of everything that happens onscreen, the acting, writing, and music conspire against them and in the end you’re left with a baffling, irritating, and unrewarding experience.

As the film begins we see Berkeley beauty queen Rene narrowly escaping attack at the hands of the shambling horde after a series of meteors slam to earth, presumably spreading the zombie virus. She finds refuge in the home of Marion who, we’re supposed to believe, once owned a weapons store but, after being attacked by a zombie fish, walks around firing three shotguns strapped together on a metal frame and building bomb shelters in his basement. Really. Soon these two are joined by others whose names are as forgettable as their characters and through their own stupidity are forced to leave the stronghold of Marion’s home to attempt to escape from the city.

After a while I found myself wondering if the Spierig Brothers were both hard of hearing and so, by constantly urging their cast to “speak up”, ended up with every character shouting at the top of their voice as though they were trying to order drinks in a wind tunnel. This ear-splitting volume is used in place of tension, everyone shrieking at the top of their voice and emoting hard enough to give the audience haemorrhoids. I’m not exaggerating when I say that there were times when the amount of noise generated onscreen by human beings alone became unbearable.

When the cast finally stops to take a breath, our zealous maestros compensate for the drop in decibel level by having every character expend artillery faster than the Crips and Bloods during a gang war. Often this is done for tasks like cutting holes in the floor or switching off an alarm, which could easily have been done quietly by hand. It may have been amusing the first time but after the third or fourth it started putting me in mind of Homer Simpson using his pistol to open a can of beer, and when your horror film has me drifting back to the cartoons of my childhood you have failed on a basic level. My reverie was almost enough to distract me from the question of from which post-apocalyptic Zellers the characters were sourcing their bullets.

When the film really kicks into gear with Rene, Marion, and the gang laying waste to the walking dead you can tell that the creators are reaching for the energy of Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive or the Evil Dead films; the red stuff flies thick and chunky as limbs are hacked off and entire zombie bodies are chopped in half, anime-style. Sadly, the film never reaches the level of mad glee it aspires to, instead inhabiting an uncomfortable middle ground between its desire to be an over-the-top horror-comedy and other, less capable attempts at being a legitimate horror film with emotional resonance. This latter fails primarily because there are no characters to speak of, just people in different costumes alternately hollering at one another and wasting ammunition until you want to shake them like a colicky child.

We’re refused even that most base of horror film comforts – gratuitous nudity. It helps to keep in mind while watching that this is a debut film and so many of the mistakes on display, like awful direction of actors, can be put down to a lack of experience compounded by a cast of amateurs. The photography is effective and first establishes the dusty feel of small-town Australia and then the desolation and isolation facing the survivors post-attack but that doesn’t excuse the fact that the only bare skin we see belongs to a hirsute bushman as he wanders around a ghost town.

By the time the plot got around to glowing E.T.s and what I think may have been an alien genital joke I had lost interest completely. The final shot is grating beyond belief and undermines everything we’ve endured over the last 100 minutes. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo pulled a similar trick at the end of his 28 Weeks Later but built up to it over the course of a tense, frightening film and the end, when it came, was earned and made sense within the context of the story. When the curtain falls on Undead you get the impression that the Spierig Brothers ended the film the way they did mainly because they were hoping that audiences would clamour for a sequel. Thankfully for all of us that never happened and they spent the downtime between projects growing as artists and shopping around for hearing aids.

Worth Watching? Not unless you’re obsessed with zombie films or you need help appreciating Daybreakers.

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