With the release of Danny Boyle's UK 28 Days Later and the recent Hollywood video-game-turned-film House of the Dead, 2003 must somehow have been declared the Year of the Zombie. Now Australia shambles into the mix with the low-budget genre entry Undead.
First time feature directors Michael and Peter Spierig have previously been responsible for a number of short films in the Land Down Under, a few of which form the basis for the story utilized in their brand new zombie outing. Clearly trained on a steady diet of Romero, Jackson and Raimi, the brothers have managed to bring to screen a nice, fun take on the legend of the walking dead that actually plays like a real B-movie. Sure, there's a little more self-awareness about the project than you used to get during the true heyday of the authentic backlot production, but the spirited approach to the material taken with this one lends just the right touch to what might otherwise have easily been but a hackneyed rehash.
The film opens in a small town somewhere in the Australian heartland, and after a short introduction to a few of the characters, the action picks right up. Local beauty queen Rene (quite capably played by Felicity Mason) is looking to skip town to escape the debts left to her by her late parents, even while she holds the prestigious title Miss Catch of the Day. But during the trip out of the village, some strange meteorites begin to fall from the sky that block her exit. Even worse, it appears that the poor townspeople who are hit by chunks of falling debris instantly become ravenous flesheaters who will stop at nothing in their attempt to feast on the walking banquet that is the living.
Eventually, Rene finds her way to the remote house of a strange local gun merchant named Marion (Mungo McKay), who may or may not be her salvation. Another local man who is on the run with his pregnant wife eventually joins them, and following the appearance of this pair a couple of local police also find shelter from the living dead in this weirdo's house. These six spend the rest of the film attempting to figure out just what the heck is happening to their little fishing village, battling zombies all the while and looking for any means of escape. There's much more to this story than meets the eye, though, for what seems at first to be a fairly straight take on the usual living corpse storyline eventually takes enough interesting turns that there are some fresh angles that help keep the plot engaging.
While it's hard to argue that this is in any way an epic work of modern cinema, Undead is made with enough care and dark humor that its best qualities triumph over its lesser aspects. There are undoubtedly flaws here, such as the fairly uneven cast of actors and additionally a few of the screenplay elements get tired awful fast. The foulmouthed policeman who bullies the group of survivors certainly gets old almost instantly, and there's some dialogue overall that might in fact have played better in the hands of a more experienced cast. However, given the amazingly low budget with which this film was made (there have been articles claiming as low as a million dollars, though that seems almost impossible), ultimately the final product is quite satisfying for the viewer and the production value is extremely high given the small amount of money the filmmakers appear to have been working with.
One thing that the Spierigs have undoubtedly done right with Undead is to integrate the special effects into the story in a manner that many big budget Hollywood filmmakers could take a lesson from. Utilizing CGI as well as on-set makeup and appliances to create the special effects for the movie, the directors create a believable environment for their characters that doesn't overwhelm the action but instead enhances it. Though the gore is fairly over the top, it works well within the context of the film and almost never really calls attention to itself alone. These effects also play out within a beautifully created setting, and production designer Matthew Putland as well as cinematographer Andrew Strahorn should be singled out for praise on just how nice the film looks. Given the film's financial limitations, it's a testament to the skills of these two members of the crew that nothing looks cheap at all here, and you'll find yourself wondering just how they managed to make a movie that is this visually engaging for what is truly a pittance.
With its darkly comic moments, solid lead acting, rapidly paced storyline and high quality low-budget milieu, Undead succeeds as a fun filled and entertaining take on what is mostly warmed over subject matter. While the brothers Spierig are only novices when it comes to the creation of cinematic works, their inexperience doesn't slow them down at all here. The enthusiasm that they have for their material shines right through in their completed film, and this is one of those movies where you can imagine that the cast and crew actually had some fun while toiling on the set. As yet there's been no indication as to what the next celluloid project these two will take on, but given this promising debut it may behoove film fans to keep one eye cocked for what emerges. Certainly any pair who can create a lively and eminently watchable couple of hours of zombie amusement such as this one bear watching.