“THE DEAD 2: INDIA” (Movie Review)
Low budget horror is oversaturated with zombies, so the greatest trick THE DEAD pulled was standing out not especially for its viscera, but for its location. Set in vast African expanses, it impressed with its landscapes, its photography and its languid pace. Stretches of it were so silent that it could have worked as a completely dialogue-free film like Luc Besson’s LE DERNIER COMBAT, and the fact that it paired an American soldier (Rob Freeman) with an indigenous African sergeant (Prince David Osei) gave it at least a suggestion of subtext.
The real, more interesting story was always behind-the-scenes though. Like Herzog making FITZCARRALDO or Coppola making APOCALYPSE NOW, the film’s gonzo frisson came from it being a completely crazy, almost unnecessarily difficult enterprise, documented in director Howard J. Ford’s memoir of the experience SURVIVING THE DEAD. It was filmmaking as extreme tourism, and that air of genuine danger, coupled with the unfamiliar setting and use of untrained locals as the zombies perhaps helped to disguise that, in terms of political nuance, there was little more going on in the film than there is in RESIDENT EVIL 5, the African-set videogame that preceded it by a year.
THE DEAD 2: INDIA is more of the same, but obviously shallow. The things that worked previously still work here. The vistas, the photography, the locals all make, on the surface, for a similarly unusual experience. The film’s engine is compelling enough: migrant worker Nicholas (Joseph Millson) needs to get from the wilderness into Mumbai while everyone else is trying to evacuate in the opposite direction. The not-overused zombie gore is efficient, with strong individual setpieces, and nine-year-old Anand Gopal (playing Nicholas’ impromptu guide Javed) is precocious but really good. His relationship with the initially reluctant Mr Nicholas grows believably. Nicholas doesn’t jump straight into parenthood like Ripley with Newt, but gradually gives in to a sense of responsibility like Max in BEYOND THUNDERDOME. It’s a story thread that verges on the mawkish—Javed carries an ineptly-made homemade rag doll that was in his cot with him when he was abandoned, and clings to it as evidence of his parents’ love—but it’s a cynic who wouldn’t even slightly buy into the sentiment, and it’s sold by Gopal’s performance.
While the film’s strengths are the same as before, the weaknesses are amplified. It’s an episodic journey from A to B, in which drama is repetitively wrung from the availability of sustenance and the condition of third-world vehicles. Nicholas is constantly worried about how many bullets he’s got left, yet always seems to have just enough. Even the basic structure is the same: a foreigner and an indigent teaming up to get somewhere while the undead shuffle around them. THE DEAD 2 moves more quickly than its predecessor and has more of an urgent drive, but your patience might still be tested by the retro-slow zombies, treated with deadly seriousness where even Romero has been sending them up lately. This is old-school zombie horror, which means the threat can often simply be walked away from; the revenants are only inexorable when the film needs to kick up a gear. There’s also a sequence where, for quite a long time, it seems that zombies have a Dalek-like issue with climbing stairs (although they do eventually figure it out, too late to prevent Nicholas’ escape by handy paraglider).
Performances, as before, are hit and miss. Meenu in particular, as Nicholas’ pregnant lover Ishani, has little to work with. Her character has practically no function other than to be upset and argue with her father. There’s no sense at all of the great love that bonds her to Nicholas and fuels his urgent desire to get to her, which is perhaps a symptom of our having never seen them together. Flashbacks or a pre-outbreak sequence early in the film might have cured this to some extent, but instead all we get are frustrated phone conversations, and the eventual revelation that Nicholas has chickened out of parenthood before, and is determined to face up to it this time. Last year’s [REC] 3 did the couple-separated-by-carnage much better.
Sadly, the film has practically nothing to say about India. For the filmmakers, there’s apparently little to understand about the country but poverty, orphans and arranged marriage. A Hindu tale about Kali is related with leaden importance, although its significance becomes clear late-on in a surprising twist ending, but it really doesn’t matter that the film is set in one of the most populous, multi-cultural and politically complex countries in the world. The same story would have worked anywhere, leaving you with the sense that this is merely the filmmakers trying to repeat their earlier adventure. Again, much of which was personal to them happened off camera. That makes for great stories at festival Q&As, but not much of it’s on screen.