Last November I covered the Leeds International Film Festival (LIFF) for Film & Festivals magazine. During that intense two weeks of film viewing, I had the pleasure of interviewing the film-makers behind the African-set, British-produced zombie-apocalypse film The Dead.
Prior to the screening at LIFF, I met up with Howard and Jon Ford, the brothers responsible for writing, directing, shooting and producing the film, along with the film’s main star Rob Freeman. It was really heartening to meet a group so enthusiastic about their film—a truly independent film, funded primarily by the brothers themselves.
Further still, to see the lead actor get so strongly behind this, along with the film-makers, was another testament to the energy within and behind the production.
Review of The Dead
The film really is a genre homage on many levels, fitting equally perfectly as a contribution to the zombie, road movie or buddy flick genres—with Leone-infused nods to the spaghetti western chucked in for good measure. All genre elements are utilised lovingly and knowingly rather than cheaply and exploitatively, and the sheer fact that so many genre elements can be mixed up without the film seeming messy is proof of some great script-writing ability.
Lt Brian Murphy (Freeman), a character based—lovingly rather than lazily—on Leone’s ‘Man with No Name’, is a mechanic. After attempting to flee Africa in the opening sequence, he crashes just off the west coast and steadily sets on a journey inland in the hope of finding some way back to his family in the US. As he makes his way inland, he runs into Sgt Daniel Dembele (Prince David Oseia), a soldier who has deserted his post to return to his village in search of his wife and son.
This is all you need to know of the plot; it is rightfully and elegantly simple. As with all great genre cinema, the film keeps all elements that make the formulaic plot recognisable, but deviates from this formula enough to say something interesting and give the audience a completely new perspective on a familiar setting.
Without doubt, the major game-changer here is the setting of Africa. The landscape is so at odds with the post-apocalyptic, claustrophobic urban environment seen in so much zombie-media in the last 30 years; for this reason the film has been unjustly compared to the Resident Evil 5 game, which is also set in Africa. Resident Evil 5 has taken a series full of suspense and intrigue with a slow burning anticipation at its heart and turned it into a mindless, dull explosion-fest. The Dead, adversely, takes a genre that, through the evolution of the ‘fast zombie’, has strayed from its suspenseful roots, and places itself firmly back there, complete with slow zombies. There’s a well-crafted, laboured tension instead of cheap jumps and breakneck editing.
Romero-influenced slow zombies are complemented by Leone-influenced long takes and expansive landscape shots, with zombies slowly but inevitably filling that vast landscape. This technique allows the suspense to build constantly, to the point where the slightest setback (stalled car, jammed pistol, etc) can turn the threat from steadily building to imminently present in a matter of seconds. It’s this slow-burning suspense, along with well crafted setpieces, that makes this film a very worthwhile contribution to the genre.
It lacks the blatant political allegory of the Romero films, yet never becomes pointless or apathetic. One of the worries I had about the African setting was the way relentless liberal academics (myself unfortunately sometimes included in this category) would be poised to criticise a film with the central white protagonist among the ‘zombified’ natives of Africa, yet having seen it, I believe the way the buddy relationship is handled—along with the representations of tribesmen and local militia met along the way—easily does enough to make some statements on humanity without relying on lazy and potentially offensive typecasts.
Interview with the Ford brothers and Rob Freeman
[As will very shortly become clear, this interview took place before Mike watched the film.]
First of all I haven’t read anything about the film as I haven’t seen it yet and I do like to go into films with as blank a slate as possible, especially when it has picked up quite a bit of buzz as this has since playing at Frightfest. So, my questions will be more about you guys and genre film in general.
Fast zombies or slow zombies: which have you chosen, why, and was this a lengthy discussion?
Howard: Definitely slow zombies! Not only was this how our inspirations, such as Romero, did it, but from a directing perspective it was also the best way to make the film more suspenseful as the fast-running zombies force you to shoot an action sequence.
Did you have a premise and then added the zombies to that, or adversely did you think: zombies are cool, let’s build a story around them? [At this point Jon pre-empts a later question, going back to what initially lit the film-making fire in his belly.]
Jon: Seeing Dawn of the Dead at such a young age really made me want to be a film-maker, so this script has been in the process of being made for a very long time.
Howard: We had always wanted to do a movie about a lone man in an unfamiliar landscape, but it was when shooting all kinds of TV commercials in Africa that we discovered these un-tapped locations, and at the same time we were getting the feeling of having worked on commercials for so long and that this was paying the bills but just not fulfilling our dreams. Then a commercial for a well-known brand of nappies tipped us over the edge and Jon said ‘we have to do this zombie film now’.
How has current momentum behind zombie media helped? For the last 10 years, starting with the original Resident Evil games, coming right up to the present with the TV show The Walking Dead, zombies have been an increasingly successful commodity. Even specifically in Britain, we have had Dead Set, 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead.
Howard: It was 28 Days Later, more than anything else, that enabled the Z-word to be used in pitching or trying to establish partnerships, even though 28 Days Later doesn’t technically feature ‘zombies’. This and Shaun of the Dead had done so well financially that it gave people confidence in the genre again. We had wanted to do a zombie movie since we were teenagers but the time had to be right if it was to work. I then went to my accountant to tell him about the idea, thinking he would laugh me out the window but not at all, in fact he offered to match my finance pound for pound and became an executive producer!
How have your journeys to get here been? [Rob came in at this point to reveal the extent of Howard and Jon’s passion as film-makers—he is visibly impressed with the film-making brothers after hearing their stories.]
Rob: When they were young, they would never go out and spend money on having a social life; they would save up and buy film equipment, going out all night shooting short films rather than going out on the town.
Co-credits: what is the situation here? It always interests me when film-makers make a point of pluralising the creators, like Powell and Pressburger.
Howard: We have been compared to the Coen brothers—and, embarrassingly, the Scott brothers—but that’s just the way it is. I have been directing with Jon as DOP through three features and well over 100 commercials and this is the way it usually works. Yet with The Dead, Jon had been so heavily involved with the script and initial concept it was only right that he had the chance to co-direct. However, as we got going, the reality of the tough shoot in Africa meant that Jon had enough responsibilities as a DOP so mainly we slipped back into our usual roles with me directing, but at the same time we were both as involved and invested.
Rob, how and when did you get involved? [Rob explained that he was taking a break from acting over in the states and came over to England to do some inline skating, a personal hobby. He met a girl who knew the Fords, and acquaintances were made. When it was time to start putting this zombie film together, Howard and Jon instantly thought of Rob.]
Howard: Probably no other actor could have survived the shoot as Rob is a fitness fanatic and this was one hell of a tough ride.
[… and his piercing blue eyes were essential to the role.]
What were your experiences on the shoot?
Howard: Rob got malaria and even features in The Dead while almost dead for real, ‘three days from death’ as the doctor had told us at one point. For a shot in the film where his character Murphy has a fever, [Rob] had been wheeled out of the hospital, had his drip taken out and shot it right there while still delirious.
[Howard reveals that he was mugged at knifepoint on their first day in the West African city where they would start their journey. Because his licence was taken, the production had to pay the police to keep him out of jail.]
Howard: We would have money extracted from us constantly, a lot of the time this was by armed police. We also had to wait five weeks to get all of our gear out of the ports there and when sufficient money had been parted with to get it in, some of it had been damaged and some of the prosthetic props had even melted in the heat.
Jon: Having come so close to death many times during the shoot, I still sometimes wake up in the middle of the night in a sweat, thinking I am stuck back out in Africa on location. A big part of me wanted to go home the moment I arrived, but luckily Howard persuaded me to stay.
Rob: I felt that something strange had been going on. I and many others felt that we may never get back home.
Howard: Although it was an incredibly harrowing experience, the African people in the villages that we encountered were fantastic and even though they hadn’t even seen cameras before they agreed to become involved in the film, often acting as zombies or survivors. We all remain grateful for the people allowing us to film in their homes and villages and hopefully adding to the unique appeal of the film.