Undead 2003I have just emerged from a weird little project called Undead, and rather than reviewing the movie in a careful and studious manner as is my standard wont, I’m instead going to opt here for a choppy, random and thoroughly unplanned approach. Why? Because this appears to be what the filmmakers have done. Tit for tat.

There’s an inherent challenge in this review, though, which is that while you watch Undead is quite redundant and I really didn’t like it all that much, I also feel hesitant to deal it any severe lashings. As far as third- or fourth-generation zombie flicks go, it tries hard. It pays the usual dues to Romero and Raimi, and even to Peter Jackson (of whose early films I wasn’t particularly fond — how long does it really take to say, “I have mother-issues” — and yet look what happened there!) But this thing definitely delivers surprises, and its makers (Australian twins Michael and Peter Spierig) evince an undeniable, manic creativity. There’s an underdog quality at work here. Beating on this film would be like punishing a child for producing a crayon-drawing unsuitable for hanging in the Louvre. And yet I just can’t love it: It’s too much of a mess.

Zombies return for Antipodean variations

The gist is this: In a little rural fishing village very conspicuously spelt out as being called “Berkeley” (it’s as ostentatious as Stephen King’s constant “Castle Rock” business), a former “Catch of the Day” beauty queen called Rene…

Whoah. Hang on a sec. I just “visited” the official Undead website, and they specifically give away the epic final visual of the full movie. As the young’uns say online these days: “WTF?”

Anyway, Rene (wide-eyed Felicity Mason) has inherited her family home, but its insurmountable debts, and thus she decides to leave town to bask for a while in the comfort of her Gran. That’s the plan, anyway, but as soon as we receive swift introductions to other characters — Wayne The Feisty Rent-A-Pilot (Rob Jenkins), Sallyanne The Heavily Pregnant Hissyfit-Thrower (Lisa Cunningham), Harrison The Hyperactive Control-Freak Cop Who Vaguely Resembles Freddie Mercury Circa Mid-1980s (Dirk Hunter), Molly His Well-Intentioned Junior Officer (Emma Randall), etc. — really freaky things start happening. Mainly, a crazy comet introduced in the opening frames gives way to huge storm clouds through which blast meteorites which, upon impact, transform people into murderous zombies. Thus, Rene —  like any good action queen who starts off vulnerable and whom we just know is going to end up tougher and stronger by the end (thank you, Ellen Ripley) — tests her mettle against both ghouls and uppity neighbours.

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Watch Undead online

It’s unfair to slam Undead watch online for featuring all the staples of the zombie-invasion film (the breakaway drywall, like the endless gunfire in Underworld: Blood Wars, the attempts to revivify splatter) — this would be akin to dissing a rock song for being in 4/4 time. All the same, though, I was twiddling my thumbs through the opening minutes. Okay, an old lady gets it in a particularly nasty way. An intentionally annoying player-guy is also dispatched rather amusingly (the Spierigs became so proud of his dancing spinal column they used it twice). But for a while the movie seems doomed to be buried in its own conventionality: A run through a forest, an isolated farmhouse, here come the extras with the yucky makeup and creepy contact-lenses, yadda-yadda (and I loathe “yadda-yadda”). But then…

Here’s where I’ve got to hand it to the Spierigs: They definitely don’t cleave tightly to expectations. Before long we’ve got a heavy deluge of acid-rain, showings of skin both titillating and zany, a massive alien wall covered in spikes reaching to the sky, and what is fast becoming an audience favourite: Zombie fish. Yep. Apparently even cold-blooded gill-breathers are not immune to the killer symptoms of this meteor strike (either that, or the brothers are paying homage to James Cameron — who really ought to make Pirhana III his next project, if you ask me, which you didn’t). This results in one heck of a mixed bag in terms of comprehensibility and overall quality, but on a shoestring budget (pre-promotion, of course; this 2002-2003 project is getting a major boost now simply because horror makes money), the Spierigs — the men they clearly admire — can’t be accused of timid moviemaking.

Undead Again

There are some grimly amusing bits, to be sure. Our hero is Marion (Mungo McKay, whose name is Mungo), and while it’s not specified that the character was named after John Wayne, there’s an over-the-top effort to render him an icon — fedora’n’trenchcoat, multiple-shotgun (thank you, Ash), wicked guitar twang whenever he’s around. What’s funny is that the guy happens to keep a zombie-proofed fallout shelter under his farmhouse: convenient. But he forgets to stock it with food and water: not convenient. Marion’s flashbacks to punching out the zombie fish prove uniquely funny. It’s a giggle to watch Officer Harrison repeatedly freaking out (“WhenIwasyoungwerespectedourparents, wedidn’teat’ em!” = one of his more comprehensible lines), and I got one big belly-laugh when Wayne witnesses the little zombie girl punching through the old woman’s skull: He screams like a baby and flees like his keister is on fire — under the circumstances, something any reasonable person not in a film would do.

Felicity Mason

As our protagonists attempt to escape, the narrative takes even more unexpected turns, but consistency also goes out the window. In a generous spirit, one could say that to watch Undead online possesses some of the anarchic spark of early Alex Cox or Slava Tsukerman. On the meaner end of the spectrum, one could call the movie a train-wreck — not as annoying as certain doomsday pictures by big studios, but only because the budget here probably equals a fraction of their catering costs.

Technically, to watch Undead online free leans toward the dark and dank, which is a plus, but its 35mm stock ends up looking like washed-out video, which is a minus. The Spierigs deserve much praise for their homemade digital effects simply because they are homemade (and, near the end, darned weird). One aspect many people may not note is that the sound mix is terrific: Peter Spierig delivers a stereo-surround experience that’s actually superior to many big budget ventures. That said, the ambitious score by Cliff Bradley is very impressive and professionally realized, but even to an only vaguely trained ear it’s clear that very specific debts are owed to John Williams and Danny Elfman.

And that’s the long and short of it with Undead: It’s more a tribute than an original. Crafty, definitely, and
afterward an old guy in a baseball cap said that it was “good” and that he “liked” it. But apart from its major weirdnesses (which are its strength), the project is mainly a mockingbird’s call to its genre’s forebears and, further, to the movie industry in general — a cheap but bold way of saying, “Hey, it’s really boring where we are and we totally like you and your crazy movies — can we come in…and maybe win an Oscar too someday?” Well, welcome to the club, guys.