It's an ordinary day in the small Australian community of Berkeley. People are out shopping, the local cricket club is out in the field practicing, and everything's as right as rain. Or at least, it would be if there were any rain... in fact, the sun is shining, and there's hardly a cloud in the sky.
That's not to say that everyone's enjoying themselves in this idyllic suburban town. Take Renée, for example: in spite of her best efforts, and even though she's just been crowned "Miss Catch of the Day" in the local beauty pageant, her family's beloved farm is about to be foreclosed upon. The debts of her late parents' estate have been too much for her to deal with. And then there's Sallyanne, who is upset that Reneée has beaten her in the pageant — though truthfully, the fact that Sallyanne is nine month's pregnant may have had something to do with the judges' decision. Then, there's Wayne, father of Sallyanne's baby, who's a pilot in his family's failing airplane-touring business... when first we meet him, he's sitting stewing over his impending fatherhood, while his mother is busy apologizing over the telephone for some unnamed catastrophe. And then, there's timid, asthmatic Molly, starting her first day as a policewoman under an insufferable tyrant named Sergeant Harrison. So perhaps things aren't quite as idyllic in Berkeley as they seem on the outside. Still, it's a lovely day for the nice lady with her basket of groceries, and the bowlers out on the green; and there's still barely a cloud in the sky.
Meteors, though, are a different matter.
Without warning, dozens of flaming meteorites punch their way through the atmosphere, flattening the sweet little old lady in the street and plowing straight through the belly of the cricketer at bat. The townspeople barely have time to realize what's going on, when something even more unexpected and spectacular happens: all the people killed by the impacts start coming back to life as murderous zombies.
Killer meteors and zombies are soon followed by unearthly cloudbanks and acid rain, as well as weird beams of light the come out of the sky and suck up living things. Those killed by the living dead become zombies themselves, and there are even suggestions that this living death may be an airborne contagion.
So it is that Renée, destitute and on her way out of town to start a new life for herself... and Wayne and Sallyanne, beginning their new lives as a family... and Molly, beginning her new (if ill-advised) career, all find their plans permanently changed to make room for the End of the World. And just by chance, these incompatible and thoroughly unhappy people all end up in the same place: the weapons shop owned by an enigmatic loner named Marion, who seems to be the only person prepared for a zombie invasion.
Marion's the village loony, who lost his family, his friends and his credibility after he claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Since his alleged abduction, he's been stockpiling weapons and water in expectation of an alien invasion. He's even made some vicious custom weapons, like a triple-shotgun that nearly vaporizes anything it's fired at. Now it looks as though Marion was right all along. But even though Marion is somewhat more prepared than everybody else, he may not be prepared enough. Marion soon finds out that nothing short of a direct hit to the head seems to stop the Berkeley zombies — even if you cut them in pieces, they tend to reconstitute themselves and pop back up again.
Fans of horror movies will recognize plenty of tongue-in-cheek references to classic zombie flicks throughout the opening of Undead, particularly when the survivors get trapped in an old farmhouse á la the original Night of the Living Dead. Undead not only strands its bickering survivors in the basement — it sticks its tongue even more firmly into its cheek, drags 'em back out again and strands 'em in the attic. Naturally, this is also the time that Sally begins to go into labor. Just when you think things couldn't possibly get any worse...
Does this setup seem somehow familiar?
Guess again. Undead sets up lots of expectations only to undermine them later.
There's a trenchant black humor that fills this Australian film, and it's black comedy that works on a number of levels. On the most obvious level, there are plenty of good gags — for instance, the way Marion keeps coming up with weapons, only to be forbidden to use them by the permit-obsessed police sergeant. And of course, there's the way Marion keeps pulling more and more guns out of his trousers, even when circumstances have made it utterly impossible that he could have any more squirreled away. And then, let's not forget the vicious flying zombie fish — how could you not love a movie with zombie fish in it? Some of this surface humor is grating: Sergeant Harrison is one of those irritating twits who are obsessed with the tiny amount of power they wield... the sort of character played so well by Monty Python's Michael Palin or John Cleese. Unfortunately, actor Dirk Hunter isn't up to the Python's style of comedy, and he overplays his character badly. He's also given far too much screen time, most of it confined in a small space with all the other principals, and as a result he's quick to wear out the viewers' patience. Though Harrison starts to emerge as a genuine character later in the film, it's too late for us to care.
But the movie's humor also works on a deeper, darker level. I can't go too far into detail without spoiling some of the impact, but I will say this (which should give you some idea of the way this film's inner humor works): the best joke of the film is that its whole conclusion — its metaphorical "punchline" — isn't funny at all.
There's a twist ending to Undead which I don't intend to reveal. However, I can reveal something about the way the twist is accomplished. Some movies keep their secrets until the very end, when they hope to pull the ground out from under you and leave you astonished. Films like those take the risk that the audience is going to spot the twist early on, in which case their efforts have largely gone to waste. What's more, unless the film makers have been very careful with their story, there's a good chance future audiences will lose interest in the film once the Big Secret becomes generally known. But there's a different approach to the twist ending, which (if done properly) can help ensure that a movie keeps its entertainment value even after everybody knows what's going to happen.
Undead gives a wonderful example of this second approach: at the beginning of the film, we and the characters on screen are given only fragmentary hints about what's going on. The broader implications of what we see are unknown to any of us. Gradually, the film gives us and its characters more pieces of the puzzle, and these pieces involve some pretty significant twists of their own. But since the characters have other things on their minds and don't have the luxury of reflection, they're unable to put the pieces together quite as easily as we do. By the middle of the second act, we can see that in spite of the initial chaos of falling rocks and ravenous corpses, there's a very good reason why things are happening the way they are. The careful viewer will have figured out what's really going on long before anybody in the film does. There's nothing more for us in the audience to do but sit back and cringe in horror, waiting for the twist: the climax that's almost certainly going to spell disaster for our well-intentioned heroes.
I'm trying to avoid spoiling too much, but I still have one or two things to say about the movie and its conclusion:
George Romero's classic zombie films, and the countless knock-offs that followed, ask viewers to imagine the End of the World as we know it. The "World" could be seen any way we want... it could be interpreted as a metaphor for a form of government, or a civilization, or the whole planet if you like; but the threat to the World, however you chose to look at it, is us.
On the one hand, the obvious and immediate threat is the horde of mindless zombies, weak and stupid individually but very dangerous em masse. These zombies are bent on devouring everything and everyone out of mindless, short-term desire... us, in other words.
On the other hand, there are the survivors; the individuals; those living, breathing, decision-making characters who should be able to see beyond their immediate circumstances. Yet they never do. Instead of finding solutions, they invariably seem to end up doomed by their own petty short-sightedness. Us, in other words.
At first, Undead gives us the same basic setup, and the same sorts of confrontations and misunderstandings we expect from a movie like this. But if anything, its conclusion is even more pessimistic. Undead seems to suggest that even when we think we're behaving nobly and selflessly — even when we pull together and unite for heroic effort in the face of disaster — we're still doomed by our short-sightedness.
If every decisive action in the movie seems to lead to deeper and deeper defeat, the heroic effort that went into making the film has resulted in triumph. This was a home-grown effort, sponsored by the Spierig Brothers (Michael and Peter) along with their family and friends. The brothers wrote, directed, edited and provided the sound & most CG special effects for the movie (and did a superb job). Their actors may not all have been polished professionals, but they showed a more-than-professional dedication to the project for very little immediate reward. In an era when the video store shelves are crammed to bursting with zombie films from every wannabe director with a home camcorder and some red food coloring, here at last is a startup effort made with such care, craftsmanship, intelligence, and above all talent that it shows up most other zombie flicks for the drivel they are.
And by the way: let me add "respect for the audience" to my list of qualities. If you take a look at the User Comments for this film on the IMDB, you'll see a bewildering number of people who lambaste the film. From their remarks, usually about the incomprehensibility of the plot, or the "weakness" of the ending, it seems they weren't watching very carefully at all. Undead is not the kind of film that lays out its terms clearly and unambiguously at the beginning, and then explains itself at every turn. In fact, not only does it refuse to explain itself: it also tries to mislead the audience, to fool it into thinking it's going to play out the way a conventional zombie movie might. Any low-budget film that attempts this sort of misdirection is taking an incredible risk, but the result is a film that's one of the most engaging and rewarding that the zombie subgenre has ever produced.