Zombies are big business these day, or at least Hollywood hopes so, with RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION opening later this month. So we thought we would take this opportunity to shine the light on a lesser known – but quite entertaining zombie opus – a fun-filled combo of gore and John Woo-style action that is more farce than fear. UNDEAD is an amusingly outrageous Australian variation on the familiar zombie theme, played mostly for laughs but with enough exciting action and horrible makeup effects to qualify as a tongue-in-cheek horror film rather than an outright spoof. It’s not as funny as it means to be, and some of the character conflict is annoying rather than dramatic, but the stunts and sight gags make it worth sitting through the weaker moments.
The film begins with an apparently ordinary day in a small Australian town. The local beauty queen (Felicity Mason), fed up with her life there, is on her way out, when circumstances intervene: a meteor lands downtown, poking a hole through one of the hapless inhabitants. (That the abrupt incongruity of this disruption of dull normality draws chuckles instead of screams is our first hint that we’re not in for a straight-out fright fest.) Then, as in SHAUN OF THE DEAD, the meteor turns people into zombies, whose bite then turns their victims into even more zombies. (To be fair, UNDEAD was released in its native land in 2003, a year before SHAUN.) A gravel-voiced, gun-wielding man (Mungo McKay) comes to the rescue, but in the end it is our beauty queen who rises to the occasion and proves herself to be the true survivor. Along the way, our characters find that their town has been completely surrounded by vast, unscalable wall, completely isolating them from the rest of the world; there is a mysterious rain that causes some unknown changes into the people it touches, after which they a levitated above the town, where they hang suspended in a coma; and just to top things off, some aliens show up….
Obviously, this is not just another low-budget Romero knock-off. The acknowledged intention of the writing-directing team of Michael and Peter Spierig was to craft a film in the manner of Peter Jackson’s early, outrageous gorefests, BAD TASTE and BRAINDEAD (a.k.a. DEAD/ALIVE), two films that pushed carnage well past the limits set by George Romero in DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979) and DAY OF THE DEAD (1985), but which adopted a hyper-kinetic cartoon aesthetic more in keeping with Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD II. Into this mix, the Spierig Brothers add a healthy doze of John Woo-style action antics: having the hero dive in slow motion while firing guns, two-handed, at the advancing zombies; or, in a wonderfully over-the-top moment, performing a 180-degree leap into the air, embedding his spurs into the top of a door frame, and firing while suspended upside down. With action like this, the film clearly is not interested in believability; it’s a movie-movie that works as a showcase for bravura excesses of action and gore that are meant to yield laughs more than screams.
Yet, somehow, it manages to avoid losing all credibility. The result is both frightening and funny — a combination of humor and horror somewhat similar to SHAUN OF THE DEAD, although the script and characterizations for UNDEAD are, frankly, not quite up to the caliber of that film. Mason is fine as our heroine, but McKay’s gravel-voice Clint Eastwood impersonation yields a one-note performance that feels fake. The rest of the cast strive to delineate their characters, but they are undermined by a script that forces them to play narrowly defined caricatures (e.g. the over-bearing, authoritative police officer and his insecure junior partner).
In particular, the film stumbles in its attempts to build dramatic tension among the supporting cast. Early on, when the characters are forced to take shelter in an underground lock-up, they begin pointlessly yelling at each other, instead of trying to figure out what they need to do. The effect is forced: it’s the script telling them to tear into each other, without really justifying their reactions, and the performers fall into the trap of trying to goose-up the weak writing by throwing themselves into it full-bore. Fortunately, these missteps are balanced by the nicely-staged action, which elevate the film a level above the usual low-budget zombie-spoof. There is also some well-done prosthetics, including the de rigueur gore expected in this sort of film.
On top of that, there are numerous, impressive computer-generated special effects that provide a larger sense of scale (such as when a small airplane weaves in and out of the levitating bodies floating over town). In the end, UNDEAD is not as sophisticated as the Romero DEAD films, nor as sinister as 28 DAYS LATER, nor as witty and clever as SHAUN OF THE DEAD, but it does not intend to be. The aesthetic here is “cult film” all the way, and on that level the Spierig Brothers succeed, creating mindless movie entertainment that works at least as well as Hollywood popcorn movies like RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE and ALIEN VS. PREDATOR. UNDEAD is the ultimate, ultra-cool, gun-smoking, brain-splattering zombie-action-comedy-gore-flick.
UNDEAD (2003). Written and directed by Michael & Peter Spierig. Cast: Felicity Mason, Mungo McKay, Rob Jenkins, Lisa Cunningham, Dick Hunter, Emma Randall