The Film: 3/5
Nick Burton (Joseph Millson) has a few problems. An American engineer working on a wind farm in India, he fled his homeland for reasons unknown to find prosperity and happiness in another land. One day he receives a call from his girlfriend Ishani (Meenu Mishra) informing him that she's pregnant. But darn it all just as Nick gets the blessed news the city of Mumbai comes under attack by a growing horde of undead cannibals. Even though he's 300 miles away Nick promises to get to Ishani soon and spirit her away from the horror and madness on the next flight out of India. She returns home to her father (Sandip Datta Gupta) who disapproves of her relationship with Nick and her mother (Poonam Mathur) who is deathly ill due to being bitten by one of the infected monsters. Meanwhile Nick begins fighting his way back to his beloved as the number of zombies overrunning the country grow by the hour. In his travels he picks up an unlikely companion in the person of Javed (Anand Krishna Goyal), a streetwise orphan who knows his way around India better than Nick does.
I fondly remember a time when zombie movies had been relegated to a niche in the horror genre. George Romero made them popular for a brief time, but the concept of armies of the dead rising to consume the flesh of the living took a stronger hold overseas where filmmakers in Europe and Asia exploited the bankability of the zombie to greater returns. Times have certainly changed. The Walking Dead is possibly the highest-rated show on cable television and Max Brooks' best-selling novel World War Z was turned into a megabudget summer blockbuster (albeit one with a PG-13 rating) starring Brad Pitt. Zombies have gone mainstream in a big way and in the process had most of what originally made their best films special stripped away in methodical fashion. Gone were the social and political subtext of the Romero films and the extreme gore and skin-crawling atmosphere of their international brethren. Zombies were now mindless, shambling husks of what used to be humanity to be coldly dispatched by the dozens with bullets, blades, and bombs to the skull - effects usually achieved with costly computer graphics, leaving some of the industry's finest FX artists out of work or scratching in the dirt for their next gig as a result.
One of the few unexpected benefits of the resurgence of zombies in cinema has been the influx of movies made by talented directors around the world with fascinating - and often highly entertaining - perspectives on the creatures and how they would function in modern society. From Edgar Wright's classic Shaun of the Dead to Tommy Wirkola's gory good throwback Dead Snow and Alejandro Brugués' Cuban-set Juan of the Dead, zombies have been carefully elevated back to the figures of horror and satire they once were. Nestled between the sublime pleasures of those global gems and the unexceptional mediocrities you can often find among SyFy's weekend programming are the movies of brothers Howard and Jonathan Ford, a talented pair of jack-of-all-trades filmmakers from Surrey, England who collaborate on the writing and direction and individually take care of the cinematography and editing. They even act on occasion. After toiling away in various capacities on a series of short films the brothers Ford made the jump to their own features with 2010's The Dead, a harrowing tale of the living dead running (or rather lurching) amok in West Africa that I have yet to see. The movie earned good reviews and generated enough revenue from its theatrical screenings and home video releases to justify the making of a sequel, the cleverly-titled The Dead 2.
This might be considered a sequel, but The Dead 2 is realistically a virtual carbon copy of the original with the names and locations changed. The hero is once again a white male from the U.S. who has to fight the undead in a foreign land with the assistance of a local ethnic sidekick. The Fords are pretty good at what they do, but they fail to bring any unique ideas to their films to set them apart from the thousands of other zombie movies being released every year. They approach their stories as serious, character-driven dramas light on humor and heavy on emotion, and there are moments of genuine terror in The Dead 2. Mostly it's a collection of vignettes where our valiant lead Nick and his little buddy Javed travel from one place to another, killing those pesky reanimated corpses with hammer blows or bullets to the head and picking up modes of transportation to get Nick closer to rescuing his fair maiden Ishani. It's like an old school video game but with a poetically nihilistic ending.
The blood and gore in The Dead 2 is minimal compared to what Romero and Fulci could deliver at their best, but the Fords employ a fine integration of practical and digital effects to create the splattered blood, juicy bullet hits, rended flesh, and exposed innards on display here. They keep the focus primarily on building up the tension as their characters seek to stay one step ahead of becoming a warm meal for a hungry zombie. One sequence has Nick using a fan-propelled parachute to spirit himself off the roof of a building crawling with the ravenous dead, while another late in the movie finds him and his kid sidekick stuck on a narrow mountain road between an oncoming truck and a small band of relentless flesh munchers. The Fords maintain a brisk pace from first frame to last and never let scenes run on too long or threaten to stagnate. Throughout they let us get to know the characters better and slowly the archetypes reveal themselves to be as flawed and terrified at the violent chaos that has overtaken their everyday world as we would be when faced with a similar situation.
Since our young lovers spend most of the movie apart the key relationships we witness evolving are between Nick and Javed and Ishani and her strict father, a character who is denied a name but regardless gets fleshed out as a human being as the story progresses. As played by Gupta, the father is introduced as a staunch traditionalist who doesn't shy from slapping his adult daughter but whose disdain for Nick has more to do with wanting to see his daughter secure for the rest of her life rather than happy and in love. He also has to watch helplessly as several of his neighbors are devoured screaming by zombies because to help them would be to endanger the lives of his wife and Ishani. In the world of The Dead no one is a badass superhero and everyone survives according to their personal and physical limitations. It's not always exciting to watch, but it's true to life and generates more suspense and sympathy from the audience. The most shocking moment in the film finds Nick forced to make a choice he doesn't deserve to face. Without spoiling the scene I'll say that you might be appalled by his actions at first, but once you give it some thought you might come to understand why Nick did what he did and even realize that in the same situation you would act the same.
Spirituality also plays a large role in The Dead 2. In one of their better dialogue scenes Javed reveals to Nick that he believes that our paths are determined for us rather than left to be sought out. As she watches her mother slowly perish Ishani has a crisis of faith and confronts her father as to whether or not the zombie outbreak was part of the Hindu god of creation Brahma's plan. Chillingly the father believes that it is all necessary to maintain a karmic balance in the world and humanity has brought this punishment on themselves, which brings to mind a similar speech given by Terry Alexander in Romero's Day of the Dead. Though the Fords don't dig too deep into the political subtext of their story they do hint at it at scattered intervals, mostly in scenes depicting how the Indian military chooses to deal with the zombie invasion. When some soldiers pull an infected man off of a bus at a roadblock what they do to him next gives some needed dramatic heft to the multiple scenes of zombies being capped between the eyes.
Millson plays his default hero Nick Burton as an imperfect man struggling to do the right thing even when it results in forever having his dreams haunted. His plays off well with little Anand Goyal, ideally cast as a worldly orphan who knows the streets of his home country but still wonders what it must be like to be in love. Mishra is on fine form as the woman who represents more than love and a happy future for Nick. But it's Gupta, playing the character who could have easily become the Harry Cooper of this film, who gets the most fully-rounded arc in The Dead 2. Technically speaking the movie excels even when it suffers from a lack of originality. Jonathan Ford achieves a grounded, propulsive immediacy as cinematographer, and Howard's editing pares each scene down to its essential to make this a speedy 98 minutes. Also returning from the original The Dead is composer Imran Ahamd, whose score for the sequel is an immersive brew of Indian rhythms and motifs and taut suspense cues and incorporates horrific, guttural screams during one particularly distressing set-piece. For a moment it sounds as if Ahmad himself was being eaten alive during the recording sessions. Perfection, even for a better-than-average zombie flick.
Being a recent film The Dead 2 wasn't going to require a lot of work to look good on home video. Anchor Bay has come through with a solid 1080p high-definition transfer that's MPEG-4 AVC-encoded and framed in the original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The gritty texture inherent in the cinematography makes the ramshackle India locations crackle with life and makes the jump to Blu-ray with its integrity remarkably unaltered. The overall quality of the transfer is sharp and brimming with appropriately muted colors but manages to not call attention to the CGI shots. An English TrueHD 5.1 track is our sole audio option and it gets the job done. The sound mix is very clean and free of distortion, dialogue is easy to make out, and the music never creates a vibrating effect even at its loudest. English SDH and Spanish subtitles are also included.
"The Making of The Dead 2" (29 minutes) is a better-than-average documentary about the production that splices interview footage with the Fords in with some behind-the-scenes B-roll video. The only remaining supplements are two brief but understandably deleted scenes and upfront previews for The Dead and Battle of the Damned.
I had a good time watching The Dead 2, but there was nothing in it that would compel to give it any more than one viewing. Without the socio-political commentary of Romero's films or the gruesome funhouse delirium of Fulci's the Ford Brothers' latest effort in the zombie genre is merely a well-executed action-horror movie that has its moments but precious little else. Rabid fright fans might disagree with my assessment so they're welcome to check out Anchor Bay's solid Blu-ray release for themselves. At least this is better than 95% of what passes for a zombie movie these days.