Undead (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

Imagining it as a pastichey homage, the directors make plain here their affection for the low-budget zombie genre, and a few horror and western details too.


Director: Peter Spierig
Display Artist: Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Lions Gate
Cast: Felicity Mason, Mungo McKay, Rob Jenkins, Lisa Cunningham, Dirk Hunter, Emma Randall
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2005-07-08 (Limited release)

Harassed by former friends ever since she won the title of Miss Catch of the Day, Rene (Felicity Mason) wants out. When she learns that, following her parents' deaths, she's also lost their property, she sees an opportunity. Indeed, the repossessing banker suggests that she's better off, because really, property is just a "burden." This seems likely in the teeny Australian fishing community of Berkeley. And so Rene decides to take up with the smarmiest smarmy agent this side of Win a Date with Tad Hamilton and head to the big city. She doesn't get far, though, because she's in a movie called Undead.

Headed down the roadway, Rene ("You call this a shortcut?") and the agent (Steve Greig) ("All the way, Rene!") are abruptly stopped by what appears a car wreck, and turns out to be the beginning of a zombie infestation. The newly undead pop up from their seeming deadness, come a-lurching to the car, and proceed to try to rip off Rene's head. Understandably perplexed, alarmed, and dumbfounded, Rene looks a goner until a stranger appears -- a stranger carrying a very large shotgun that he proceeds to empty into the monsters (including the agent). Impressed, she runs along after the stranger through the woods to his house, where he introduces himself as Marion (Mungo McKay), erstwhile keeper of Marion's World of Weapons. "Those things you saw out there," he mutters, "That's only the beginning... the beginning of the end." Of what, she asks. "Of the world," says Marion. "Of the universe. Of everything."

They do seem well-matched. But it's not long before they find themselves joined by two more couples -- the baseball-cap-wearing Wayne (Rob Jenkins), his very pregnant wife Sallyanne (Lisa Cunningham), the big-mouthed local cop Sgt. Harrison (Dirk Hunter), and his new assistant Molly (Emma Randall). Wayne and Sallyanne had a car, but now they don't: Aunt Aggy has the keys, and well, now "she doesn't have a brain!"

Following the introduction of the crew who will become this zombie film's survivors-until-they-die rmy of zombies also come crashing through the front door, muddling and gaping, and occasionally appearing sinister. At first, the human crew is pretty much mesmerized by watching Marion shoot and backflip as he takes on all the zombies himself -- the guy is amazing, apparently superpowered but drawing some attitude from Clint Eastwood during his man-with-no-name days, not to mention a name from John Wayne. Eventually, Harrison remembers that he's supposed to be a shooter too, and Rene gets desperate enough to pick up a weapon. Soon everyone's run down to the basement, where they ponder the usual options. These are limited. As Marion observes, "Crazy's definitely come to this town for a visit."

Not precisely innovative, Undead is the first feature by former commercial shooters Michael and Peter Spierig. Imagining it as a pastichey homage, they make plain here their affection for the low-budget zombie genre, and a few horror and western details too. As the promotional materials for their film underline, the Romero-Raimi--Jackson-inspired Spierigs hired local crew and actors, shot for 14 days, then special-effected the digital camera footage on their home computers. You can see the many pieces whirling around -- not only do the zombies eat flesh and wobble when they walk, but they also appear to be related to some sort of alien invasion, and a moralistic alien invasion at that, meaning to school earthlings in good behavior.

But these pieces don't come quite together as comedy or satire, or even horror. While the property issue raised at the start might suggest an interest in, say, the ways zombies consume or inhabit bodies, or maybe the property that bodies become when they're undead as opposed to dead or alive. Marion has a little backstory of his own, which he confides to Rene, having to do with a confrontation with some zombie fish, after which battle he feels endowed with his special fighter-guy powers. He believes in himself as a hero, and encourages Rene to see herself similarly: "Are you a fighter, Fish Queen? Or are you zombie food?"

Could be she's not either, but the movie isn't so keen on alternatives. For all its raucous messing with zombie movie rules, it's also a fairly circumscribed affair, and not because it's low budget. Undead keeps laying down limits, of trust, time, and space. The idea appears in Rene's inability to escape her past, and ten again, more literally, in the human group's inability, once they leave the basement, to leave town. They actually run into a gigantic, unscalable, spiked wall, apparently plopped down by the aliens to keep their experiment contained. The aliens end up describing their project as a "cure" for humans, to stop their self-destructiveness. Alas, like most any zealots' causes, this one entails lots of destruction.

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