The small fishing town of Berkeley in Australia is a quiet and friendly place, where nothing much happens apart from local loon Marion’s (Mungo McKay) tales of being attacked by zombie fish and abducted by aliens. “Catch of the Day” beauty contest winner Rene (Felicity Mason) has had her farm taken over by the wonderful old ‘Building and Loan’ after the death of her parents, and can’t wait to leave the town and start a new life elsewhere. Unfortunately, leaving is going to be a touch difficult today as a strange shower of meteorites land upon the town, bringing with them a strange virus which transforms the peaceful residents into violent flesh-munching zombie! After being saved from winding up as someone’s main course by Marion, Rene takes shelter in his house, where they try to help other survivors escape an insane mélange of acid rain and the carnivorous living dead. Will they survive the horror, and has this all got something to do with Marion’s crazy stories?
The story of how two brothers made a glossy-looking CG-heavy zombie romp with practically no budget is quite well known and this aspect is pretty well covered by our own Mickey Juice in his review of the R4 DVD, which you can find HERE. I pretty much agree with most of what he says, so instead of simply repeating him I’ll let you read his review and then add my own take. This film has more than its share of detractors, and whilst I understand much of the criticism the sheer scale of the achievement with such little resources can’t help but impress me. Then again, I’m a shameless whore for zombie movies, so it gets bonus marks from me simply for providing a unique spin on my favourite sub-genre.
What is most immediately striking about “Undead” is the pure ambition that it displays – whilst most low-budget zombie flicks have simplistic narratives and few locations, this is a film of really big scope which includes ideas and visuals that most filmmakers would never dream of attempting at this level. This reckless ambition (together with how well this is realised onscreen) really is the films strongest asset – they may not have had much money, but all of it (and more!) is up onscreen! The digital colour grading gives the film a unique visual tone that helps to mask the low budget, and whilst the CG effects are not always 100% (the explosions for example look really fake), they beat the hell out of anything in “Catwoman” and some sequences (such as the plane flight) are simply breathtaking. In addition the overall concept, mixing zombies and aliens, is something I’ve never seen before, and constantly plays with the audiences expectations, giving the film an individual position in the history of zombie movies.
It’s not all good though, and ironically the films greatest asset is also one of its biggest weaknesses – “Undead” simply tries too hard. Most of the film is played for splatter comedy, and although the plentiful gore is great, not all of the humour works. Too often the cast shamelessly mug for supposedly comedic effect (Dirk Hunter is the worst offender here) and the OTT hammy performances start to grate and actually make it less funny. Meanwhile as Marion, Mungo McKay underplays and is much too self-consciously “cool” to entirely convince as the gruff triple-shotgun wielding outsider. This lets Felicity Mason walk off as giving the best performance, if only because she has the only character who is both plausible and not irritating.
If McKay is too self-consciously “cool” to be genuinely cool, then so is the way the Spierig brothers film him. With plentiful slo-mo, twin-handed gunplay and occasional bouts of acrobatics accompanied by twanging guitars on the soundtrack they seem to be striving hard to make iconic moments and you can almost hear them off camera smirking “hehehe…cool!” This is incidentally a criticism I’ve also leveled at “The Matrix” – genuine cool is effortless but “Undead” is simply too arch and self-conscious to entire convince. Meanwhile, by the time the CG-loaded climax rolled around, I couldn’t help but wish for something a touch less flashy, and missed the old school grungy aesthetics of “Bad Taste” or “The Evil Dead”.
Cliff Bradley contributes a fun score that mostly works well (particularly during the more tense moments) and boasts a memorable main theme. It’s less convincing during the more comedic sections because like the hammy performances it overplays the gags, and the music describing the peaceful nature of the town sounds curiously similar to the ‘Out to Sea’ music from “Jaws”.
Reading much of the above it sounds like my feelings towards “Undead” are mostly negative, but in point of fact I really enjoyed this fun little addition to the genre. It’s far from perfect, but its weaknesses and unevenness somehow adds to the charm whilst it at least manages to deliver a healthy dose of strewn guts and blood splashes. Not quite a classic then, but its balls-out ambition demands huge amounts of respect, and it makes for cracking late-night entertainment.
Having given the film a limited theatrical release, Anchor Bay UK release “Undead” on a R2/PAL disc that is about a packed-out as a single disc can get. The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer looks really good – the slightest hints of grain during dark sequences are inevitably given the Super-16mm origins of the film and I can’t imagine it looking much better than this. Upping the ante from the R4 DVD, AB add to the Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 audio tracks with a DTS 5.1 mix which works really well, even it the surrounds are perhaps not quite so active as I may have hoped.
A terrific selection of extras has been pretty much carried over intact from the R4 disc, and starts with not one but two audio commentaries. One features the Spierig brothers with Andrew Strahorn (DoP), and Steven Boyle (make-up effects), whilst the cast track boasts Mungo McKay, Dirk Hunter, and Emma Randall. Moving on, there’s a 35-minute making-of that deepens your respect for how difficult and complex the shoot was, with its multiple tales of illness, lack of sleep, and van trouble. Beyond this, there’s a short featurette “The Zombies” which was originally made for the website, plus almost ten minutes of footage from the Toronto Film Festival screening, where it was the last film to play at the Uptown cinema.
A load of smaller but still interesting features crop up – camera and make-up tests, a video detailing the construction of their home-made dolly, animatic to film comparisons, deleted scenes, trailers, production notes, stills, artwork and design galleries, plus cast and crew bios. This is a terrific selection of goodies, and helps to transform a decent movie into a worthwhile purchase.