There is no genre that needs a swift kick in the butt more often than the horror genre and there is no sub-genre that needs innovation as desperately as the zombie film. There were two zombie films at Fantastic Fest this year, one attempting to do something new with the genre and the other working in familiar territory. One is a good movie. The other is not.
Howard J. Ford and Jonathan Ford’s The Dead is conceptually brilliant, promising to do something with the zombie film that has never been done before. Taking place in Africa, The Dead is the story of an American soldier whose attempt to escape from a city with a sudden case of the Living Deads ends when his plane plummets into the ocean and he finds himself alone in the wilderness, surrounded by walking corpses and quickly running out of food and water.
Now, let’s say it all together in your best 1930s radio announcer voice: “Whatta’ premise!”
In the course of watching The Dead, though, you quickly come to a horrible realization: the quality ends with the logline. It’s not cool to pick on a little movie and it’s especially not cool to pick on a little movie that was actually shot on location in Africa to take advantage of the beauty and desolation of the landscape, but once you
realize that The Dead is shot entirely in close-ups and never even once takes advantage of the landscape, it starts to become very easy.
Ambition can only buy you so much and while The Dead has guts, it’s a thoroughly incompetent production from both a technical and a storytelling standpoint. Badly shot and edited, the story chugs along with no momentum, never giving characters a chance to evolve and never letting conflict grow. Here is our protagonist, stranded in the middle of the wilderness, the cities choked with walking corpses and the only way to escape is to venture deeper and deeper into Africa, but when he runs out of water, he finds water in the next scene. When he runs out of gas, he finds gas in the next scene. While I appreciate the use of slow zombies instead of the new-fangled running variety, the film falls back on them far too much. No matter how desolate the landscape, no matter how deep we are in the desert, no matter how far the movie takes us from civilization, a dozen zombies are ready to pop up at a moment’s notice.
The zombies should have been the secondary threat, the reason why cities must be avoided and why escape into the savannah is the only option. That sense of isolation, of being far from home with the living dead behind you, the desert in front of you and the hot African sun above you, that’s what’s scary. THAT’S a movie.
We never get the sense of being stranded and alone. We only get a lot of zombies in shockingly lame make-up (of the blue-faced original Dawn of the Dead variety) and they’re dealt with so effortlessly each time they rear their heads that they stop feeling like a real threat by the twenty-minute mark. Since the Ford brothers don’t have any the threats or surprises up their sleeves, this leads to one tedious movie.
And when 80% of your movie rests on the shoulders of one actor, you don’t cast Rob Freeman, who gives a stunningly painful performance, the kind of work you can’t believe was allowed by the filmmakers (or at least the people putting up the money). Equally ineffective is Prince David Oseia, apparently a movie star in Africa, as an African soldier who teams up with our hero to find his son. In an sense, The Dead is a road movie, following these two morons as they aimlessly drive through Africa, one looking for his son, the other trying to find an airbase, neither of them seeming to be particularly in a hurry. Even in the final scene, I found myself wondering exactly what these guys were hoping to find.
I’ll give The Dead credit for trying something new even if nothing ends up working, but it’s difficult to throw niceties its way when Rammbock exists. A German film (and if the program notes are to believed, the nation’s first serious attempt at a zombie film), Rammbock is the story of a man whose plan to make up with his ex-girlfriend is put on hold when Berlin finds itself overwhelmed with flesh-eating former humans. Trapped in an apartment, he must team up with strangers to rescue the woman he loves and escape from the city.
As that synopsis clearly shows, Rammbock doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s a damn fine wheel. At 65 minutes, Rammbock is barely a feature film, but it makes up for that brief running time by being intense, clever, brutal and by getting started early and not letting up until the credits roll. Sure, another half hour would have padded out this thing out to a more “respectable” running time, but then you’d get people bitching about slow spots and padding. There is not a single once of fat on Rammbock. It’s lean and fast, one the quickest, best paced horror films I’ve seen in some time.
The story builds around a series of conflicts. The apartment’s central courtyard is filled with zombies and it will stay that way until someone shuts the front gate. But that means someone has to brave the hallways, also filled with the living dead. A family across the courtyard is in desperate need of medicine, promising food to whoever assists them. With no food and no water and a missing girlfriend, our hero goes to their rescue. Pursued by zombies, this quest takes him down hallways, out windows, over the roof and even through walls, an incredible extended chase sequence that fills out the bulk of the film.
As fun as Rammbock is when things get crazy, some of the best moments come when the bloodletting stops. Scenes where survivors sit on their balconies around the courtyard and communicate with written signs and sign language are remarkable, feeling like a Romero-directed Rear Window. We never leave the apartment complex and we rarely leave our protagonist, never cutting to other apartments and rarely cutting down to the courtyard, leaving our hero (and ourselves) to watch helplessly from above as people become lunch for their former neighbors and escape starts to look less and less likely.
If there’s any real fault with Rammbock, it’s that it may be a little too simple. There’s not a lot going on beneath the surface here, but that surface is exciting and fast enough that to complain would be to nitpick. The Dead attempts to make a hamfisted statement about race and acceptance. The result is embarrassing. Rammbock only wants to kick your ass for a little over an hour. The result is exceptional.
Rammbock is the best zombie movie in a long time and proof that you don’t need a high concept to feel fresh and innovative. You just need guts. And since this is the zombie genre we’re talking about, those guts are metaphorical and literal.