Of the assorted cinematic horror themes, zombies are one of my favorite poisons. Sure, I derive a degree of enjoyment from the slashers, lycanthropes, spooks, bloodsuckers, demons and sea-beasts, but for some reason those doddering reanimated cannibals amuse me the most. That said, I can still smell the fetid stench when these elements are poorly handled, and despite their rising numbers, decent zombie movies are few and far between. The Australian zombie flick Undead, however, doesn’t stink.

In the small Aussie fishing town of Berkeley, saucer-eyed "Catch of the Day" pageant queen Rene (Felicity Mason) is preparing to abscond from the mounting debts on her deceased parents’ farm. Just as she’s hitting the road, the modest community (or, more to the point, its denizens) is suddenly pelted with meteor fragments, and curious but decidedly zombie-like behavior is exhibited by anyone exposed to the fallen rocks.

After her initial run-in with these new meatseeking residents, Rene seeks sanctuary at the home of local eccentric/recluse/gun-nut Marion (Mungo McKay, speaking in his best Clint Eastwood rasp). To Rene’s dismay, Marion (who’s reminiscent of Liam Neeson’s Next of Kin clodhopper, but with a lot more ordnance) seems convinced that he’s been personally selected to prevent the imminent apocalypse, based on his previous close encounter of the undead aquatic kind. Fortunately, he’s got the firepower for it.

In short order, other potential bipedal meals arrive at Marion‘s residence, including the town’s tense, overbearing sheriff (Dirk Hunter) and his skittish novice deputy (Emma Randall), and a local charter pilot (Rob Jenkins) and his extremely pregnant wife (Lisa Cunningham). After briefly fending off the besieging zombies, the group concludes that their (and the impending baby’s) best chance of survival is to get the hell out of town with all alacrity.

Undead has the the traditional ingredients for a zombie movie: a disparate group of core characters trapped in an enclosed space by walking flesh-eaters, slowly coming to grips with their predicament before deciding on a course of action and executing it. From there, however, the film goes off on its own unique and surprising tangents, and is all the more impressive for attempting clever variations on an old premise. Don’t be concerned that you’ve never heard of any of Undead‘s main actors, because there’s nary an unconvincing performance among them, with a memorable pair of lead characters that in time will likely join the ranks of favorite movie monster-mashers. And the terrific whimsical score by Cliff Bradley sets an ominous tone and evokes the atomic monster movies of the 50s, as does the film’s opening title sequence.

This may be a first feature, but the Spierig brothers aren’t amateurs. Either that or they’re faking it really well, with a solid script, a slick directing style (if a bit heavy on the blue filters), and exceptional use of special effects both practical and computer-generated — all the more impressive considering the movie barely cost a million bucks. Gushing with gloriously gooey gore and laced with black humor, the film pays fond respects to the works of godfathers Romero, Raimi and Peter Jackson (as well as a certain "survival horror" videogame that became a disappointing movie franchise), but never blatantly swipes from any of them. Judging from the confident visual flourishes and genre savvy, the Spierigs should have a prosperous movie career ahead of them.

8.0 out of 10