Zone of the Dead (2009)

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If you only remember Ken Foree as the awesome Peter in the original “Dawn Of The Dead”, then…you’ve been pretty lucky, as his IMDB page for the last 15 years is “Kenan and Kel” and a long list of really bad-sounding horror films. Is this another of that long list, or did he buck the trend and make something decent with this very originally-titled film?

First off, we’re assaulted with some of the worst dubbing I’ve ever heard. The different people in this conversation appear to have been recorded at different times, using different equipment, even though it appears that a few of them are actually mouthing the right words (presumably an issue with the thickness of their accents, this being filmed somewhere in eastern Europe). These dubbed people are archaeologists and police – some Black Death victims have been found, and everyone’s pretty casual about the fact that one of the researchers died after exposure to the corpses. Anyway, dead guy gets up from his gurney, blood pouring from mouth, white eyes, guttural growl, you know the drill.

Two years later, and I’m already a bit confused. At least I think it was two years later, if it’s not then I have absolutely no idea what’s going on. A small town in the former Yugoslavia, a small train station, a few people dotted about. If you were collecting really stupid reasons for the beginning of the Apocalypse (this film’s alternate title- “Apocalypse of the Dead”), then this ought to be right up there – thanks to two years of experiments, they’ve figured out a way to turn the Black Death into an airborne zombie creator, and are transporting it on the railway, stopping at the tiny little station; a passing group of drunk soldiers have a scuffle with the station guard, a gun gets fired, a tube gets pierced, gas escapes, and we’re on.

The main group in the film is led by Foree, as a police officer of some sort, who’s transporting / extraditing an unnamed prisoner. He has a beautiful young sidekick who’s never been in the field before; a couple of local cannon fodder types, and the guy who survived the initial gas blast at the station. They take a heck of a long time to figure out what’s going on, and when they do survival is the only thing on their minds.

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This movie divided opinion at my house. I was so bowled over by its technical inadequacy that I immediately dismissed it, whereas my wife decided it was actually pretty decent. I think, ultimately, both opinions are correct. But I’ll talk more about mine because I’m the reviewer in our marriage and she had a magazine to retreat behind when things got too boring.

It’s one of the most technically shoddy films I can remember. For one thing, there’s no lighting. I’m not exaggerating, either – a few scenes just aren’t lit, some use whatever streetlight or lamp they can find, and one scene is lit with a spotlight, only the guy controlling the spotlight occasionally forgets he’s supposed to be lighting the people in the scene so we can see them, and just wanders off (maybe it’s a prison yard, but it really doesn’t look like it). If I had to guess, I’d say the filmmakers were sold some digital cameras on the basis they worked with natural light, and were scammed big-time.

Talking of the cameras, almost everything is handheld. It’s not like the camera “exists” in the world of the film, so there’s no real need for it, and all that happens is even someone like myself, never travel-sick, started to feel a bit queasy. It makes some of the scenes very difficult to see, and the difference with the few scenes that seem to be “normally” shot is enormous. The script, written by a Serbian, seems to have been translated poorly into English. And lastly, no-one bothered training the zombie actors. Some of them run, some of them shuffle with their arms out, and the sound effects guy mistook his “horror groaning” CD for a “weird animal sounds” one.

That’s the technical stuff, while the meat and drink of the film is a slightly different animal. It seems they weren’t sure about their timescale – from the gas escape in the tiny train station to what would appear to be later that same night, society has completely fallen apart. The police station is empty and ransacked and seemingly thousands of people have been turned into zombies. There are evidently no zombie movies in this universe, because everyone is stupid about the undead, with the exception of two people. One is the unnamed prisoner, who seems to know a lot about what’s going on, is a kickass fighter, and so on. The other is a mental patient WHO WAS RIGHT ALL ALONG, and is presumably a former soldier due to his knowledge of weaponry (and how easily he kills the zombies). The mental patient does his own thing, pretty much, including getting himself on TV, and they only meet up near the end.

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But here’s the thing – the actual plotting of the film isn’t that bad. The main English-speaking cast are all fine and their motivation is pretty clear. There’s some fun stuff too – one of the characters does that “diving through the air shooting” thing so beloved of 80s action films, for no reason whatsoever; and Foree slips in a reference to “Dawn Of The Dead”, despite it not really making much sense in the context of the conversation it’s in. They use the Chernobyl disaster in a very interesting way too, to drive the plot along.

Add in some really good gore effects and the overall effect is a really confusing one. On the one hand, it’s so poorly made that I feel unable to truly recommend it, and on the other hand there’s a germ of a good film here. Take out the non-acting Eastern Europeans and replace them with actual actors, and hire a few people who’ve actually made films before, and you might have something. Apparently, the trailer for this film is one of the most viewed of all time (over 9 million Youtube hits) which I have no explanation for; and to say the ending set itself up for a sequel is putting it mildly. Having “These Characters Will Return In Zone Of The Dead 2” in ten-foot high neon lights would have been more subtle.

Rating: thumbs down

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