31 Days of Halloween, aliens, Australian films, Australian horror films, cinema, co-directors, co-writers, Daybreakers, Dead Alive, Dirk Hunter, Edgar Wright, Emma Randall, feature-film debut, Felicity Mason, film reviews, films, Gaynor Wensley, gore films, horror-comedies, infections, meteor, Michael Spierig, Movies, Mungo McKay, Peter Jackson, Peter Spierig, Rob Jenkins, sci-fi, sci-fi-horror, small town life, the Spierig Brothers, triple shotgun, twist ending, undead, writer-director, zombie, zombie film, zombies
For the most part, it’s extremely hard to surprise me with a twist in a horror film. This has nothing to do with me being some sort of super-astute audience member (although I like to think that I pay careful attention will watching) and everything to do with the fact that I’ve spent the majority of my life watching every single horror flick I could get my hands on. Trust me: if I’ve seen some of this shit once, I’ve seen it a hundred thousand times. “It was only a dream” ending? Check. Unreliable narrator? Yup. “I see dead people?” That one sounds familiar. How about that old classic “It was only a dream but now it’s about to come true?” Yawn. “We were ghosts all along?” Sounds familiar. “This desolate wasteland is actually Earth?” Move along, folks…nothing to see here. For the most part, cinematic twists are like any other aspect of pop films: if it worked once, conventional wisdom says that it will work forever, ad infinitum.
The first time that I sat down to watch the Spierig Brothers’ (Michael and Peter) feature-debut, Undead (2003), I was pretty sure that I knew what I would be getting in for. This was a modern-day zombie film, so I was pretty sure this was either going to follow the Shaun of the Dead (2004) mode (although Undead actually preceded Wright’s British rom-zom-com) or Zack Snyder’s ultra self-referential Dawn of the Dead (2004) remake (although Undead actually came before that one, too). It was an Australian film, so I was pretty sure that it would be suitably gory and/or rather insane, as Aussie genre films are wont to be. At the time, I didn’t really know much more about the film than that: it was just the newest genre film that I’d yet to see, which pretty much made it must-see for me, sight unseen.
Little did I know, of course, that Undead is anything but your average zombie film. Hell, it’s not really like your average anything, to be honest: if I had to classify the film, I’d say that it exists in a suitably daffy territory somewhere between Peter Jackson’s classic gore comedy Dead Alive (1992) and Edgar Wright’s gonzo alien-invasion comedy The World’s End (2013). It’s a zombie film, to be sure, but it’s also an alien invasion film that features deadly acid rain, a hulking, nearly silent hero with a triple-shotgun and a happy-go-lucky finale that’s like a sloppy make-out session between Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Stephen King’s Under the Dome. It’s a gore film, through and through, featuring some mighty impressive practical effects mixed in with some less than thoroughly convincing CGI but it’s also a good-natured, character-based comedy that places a premium on convincing acting and keeps the scenery chewing to a bare minimum. In short, Undead isn’t really like any one thing: it’s more like the rag-tag Voltron of out-of-control exploitation cinema, come to save the world while tearing as many people in half as possible. It is, to be honest, a complete treasure.
Since part of the unmitigated joy of watching Undead involves all of the ingenious little ways in which co-writers/directors Michael and Peter Spierig constantly screw with expectations, it behooves me to say as little about the actual plot as possible. Suffice to say that the film begins with a meteor shower, turns into a zombie apocalypse film and then proceeds to morph into something completely batshit crazy. While I’ve referenced several things that would seem to give a pretty good indication of the film’s intended direction, nothing can really prepare one for the bizarre ways in which the Spierigs decide to connect the dots. The best advise I can give with the film is to go in as blissfully unaware as possible and just surrender yourself to the insanity. Trust that the Spierigs will get you from Point A to Point Z intact (despite how insane the film becomes, it always makes perfect, if cracked, sense which is something of a minor miracle) and just get to the business of enjoying the film.
And, boy howdy, is there a lot to enjoy here. Despite the occasionally dodgy effect (the CGI sky, in particular, never looks quite right), Undead is an absolute special effects marvel, filled with one eye-popping setpiece after another. Picking favorites is kind of moot, since they’re all so good but particular standouts would definitely include the amazing convenience-store battle (the makeshift broom/circular saw weapon would make Ash weep with joy) and the bit where Marion (Mungo McKay) strides through the landscape bare-ass naked, wasting zombies just as ruthlessly as when his delicate bits were covered up. The finale is a completely gonzo joy and the seemingly never-ending zombie mayhem is handled with as much cheeky aplomb as the similar material in Jackson’s Dead Alive, pretty much the gold standard for these types of films.
In most horror/action films, you’re lucky if you get one truly great hero: Undead actually gives you two, the aforementioned absolute badass Marion and the film’s heroine, Rene (Felicity Mason). In any other film, a character like Marion would steal the film from the rest of the cast and head straight for the hills: how in the hell are you supposed to compete with a one-man zombie kill-squad who carries a triple-shotgun and comes straight out of the “Man With No Name” school of near-silent asskickery? One iconic character isn’t enough for Undead, however, since we also get Rene, a former beauty contest winner who ends up being the most no-nonsense, take charge, ass-kicking heroine since Ripley had a little problem with an uninvited interstellar guest. While McKay and Mason are both absolutely amazing performers, they’re handily supported by a better-than-average cast, including Emma Randall as an asthma inhaler-armed deputy and Dirk Hunter as a ridiculously macho gun-nut police officer who constantly attempts to assume authority without ever actually assuming it.
From a craft-point, Undead is an exceptionally well-made film. There’s a sense of whimsy to the proceedings that helps to temper the extreme violence (and Undead is extremely violent, no two ways about it), in a similar strategy to Dead Alive, and the film is full of nuance and subtlety, despite the filmmakers’ “go-for-broke” approach to the craft. The movie never feels silly, however, and proudly earns each and every one of its horror beats: this is a full-throttle horror film, first and foremost, despite the wealth of laugh-out-loud moments. And laugh-out-loud moments there are aplenty: Marion engaging in fisticuffs with a zombified fish…Rene cutting a zombie in half with a steering wheel club…Dept. Harrison assuring everyone that “people hallucinate sometimes when they panic…I know that I do,” which has to rank as the last thing you want to hear a cop say in an emergency…Marion hanging upside down from the door frame, by his spurs, and blowing away zombies left and right…as I said earlier, it’s literally one amazing setpiece after another for the better part of 90 minutes.
The Spierig Brothers would go on to make Daybreakers (2009), the Ethan Hawke-led vampire film, although that’s a solid step down from what’s on display here. Like Peter Jackson, the Spierigs are at their absolute best when indulging all of their (many) whims: larger budgets and the participation of more “respectable” agencies just seem to dilute their impact. While there’s nothing terrible wrong with Daybreakers, there’s also nothing particularly exceptional about it, either: when compared with Undead, however, the deficiencies become that much more glaring.
Like Dead Alive, Undead will absolutely not be for everyone’s tastes. It’s hard not to oversell the film’s violence and gore quotient but sensitive souls should take note: the film thrives on graphic dismemberment and bodily explosions in a way that indicates that New Zealand and Australia might be close, geographically, but they’re even closer, cinematically. The film might not revel quite as much in the over-the-top obscenity of Jackson’s classic (you won’t find any zombie wombs in this, period, much less ones large enough to stuff a protagonist into) but it never shirks on either the red stuff or clever ideas, either. And there’s actually one point on which Undead absolutely trumps Dead Alive: while Dead Alive had a rip-roaring finale that made you want to pump your fist in the air, Undead has a mind-blowingly cerebral one that really makes you think about everything that came before. Bloody, hilarious and thought-provoking? Without a doubt, Undead is the real deal: if your stomach is strong enough, give this a try and meet your new favorite film.