Monday, 20 July 2015

The Dead 2: India

Director: Howard J Ford
Producer: Howard J Ford
Writers: Howard J Ford, Jon Ford
Cast: Joseph Millson, Anand Gopal, Meenu
Country: UK
Year of release: 2014
Reviewed from: screener

I saw The Dead at the Fifth UK Festival of Zombie Culture in Leicester back in November 2011, and it blew me away. I’m not sure why I didn’t review it – sometimes I’m just too busy with other stuff. Nevertheless, since then I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that, as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the very best zombie films ever made.

Zombie films should be scary – that’s a given.  They can be action-packed, or funny, or intense and broody. Or just bleak and depressing – that’s my favourite sort. The genre’s ur-text, Night of the Living Dead, is bleak and depressing. It is also riven with social and political subtext, and for me that’s the icing on the cake of any zombie film. The Dead has social and political subtext in spades. It can’t help having subtext. I don’t know to what extent the Ford Brothers wanted to explore ideas of racism, colonialism and globalism – but that’s what the film is about. You simply cannot show a white guy shooting a succession of shuffling, blank-eyed black folk without there being some sort of racial subtext.

The Dead also did what most zombie films fail to do, which is take the genre in a new direction. In one sense, that was as high concept as ‘zombies in Africa’ but it was much more than that. It was taking the standard global zombie apocalypse out of its traditional urban environment and placing it in a desolate, empty landscape. The sort of place where you can see the zombies when they’re still a mile away.

These are traditional, shuffling, shambling zombies – killed by existing zombies then reanimating themselves. There’s no running, no moaning for “Bwains!” They’re actually really easy to avoid, provided that you don’t let yourself get surrounded or trapped in a corner. But there’s just so many of them, and they’re everywhere, and all they have to do is get one bite in and you’re doomed. Much like the Terminator, they cannot be reasoned with, they cannot be bargained with and they absolutely will not stop.

Hell, as someone once pointed out, is other people. As a card-carrying misanthropist, I take that as my sermon almost every day. And that’s what a fine zombie picture like The Dead uses as its underlying premise. The zombies are us. Sometimes literally: recognisable friends and family. Sometimes generically. These are not vampires or werewolves or extra-terrestrials or killer robots: not ‘the alien other’. Zombies are people. (Which is not the same as saying that a zombie is a person – though sometimes that’s true also.) It’s the anonymity of the zombie hordes that makes them so powerful and effective in exploring socio-political ideas. A shuffling crowd of zombies is a riot happening in slow motion, but happening nonetheless.

Sometimes a film gets it just right. The Dead got it just right. I remain both puzzled and disappointed that it didn’t receive more acclaim (although 72% on Rotten Tomatoes isn’t bad).

The first film premiered at the 2010 Frightfest; three years later the world premiere of the sequel, which transposed the action to India, was the opening movie at the same event. It has taken a couple of years to subsequently appear on UK DVD but the wait has been worth it because this is another terrific zombie feature. It repeats the success of the first film while also doing something new – always the biggest challenge for a sequel.

British actor Joseph Millson (SNUB, Dead of the Nite, The Sarah Jane Adventures) effects a convincing accent to play American engineer Nicholas Burton, working on wind farm installations in Rajasthan. Meenu Mishra (credited as just ‘Meenu’) is Ishani, the girl he has fallen in love with. She lives with her parents (Sandip Datta Gupta and Poonham Mathur) in Mumbai, 300 miles away. Her father distrusts the American, wants his daughter to marry a good Indian boy, and isn’t likely to react well if/when he finds out she’s pregnant.

A slightly clunky scene at the start in the dockyards of Mumbai justifies the arrival of the zombie infection in the subcontinent. Before too long, violence and fear are working their way through the city streets and into the countryside. US citizens are evacuated but Burton sets off across country to find Ishani.

India is a very different place to Africa. The first film traded on the empty desolation of its locales. The Dead 2 has some open landscapes but more urban and suburban scenes, including Ishani and her family, locked inside their house, trying to stay away from the chaos outside. Where Africa was presented as simple, basic and largely featureless, India is shown to be a complex country: a mix of cultures, politics, industry and tradition. It also has a very large and well-organised army, who are swiftly deployed to deal with the situation. It’s not like there isn’t already civil strife and unrest in Indie. “It’s probably just another Hindus vs Sikhs things,” opines Burton’s voice-on-the-phone colleague Max (Holby City’s Hari Dhillon).

Where the first film dwelt on themes of humanity and understanding, played out against a tapestry of historical and modern colonialism, the principal theme in The Dead 2 is parenthood. Ishani is indeed expecting Burton’s baby, and her relationship with her father has shades and tones. “He is a good man,” her sick (bitten) mother assures Ishani. “He provides for us.” Burton himself becomes an ersatz parent when he teams up with a young orphan named Javed (brilliantly played by Anand Gopal, whom the IMDB thinks is Wall Street Journal correspondent Anand Goyal!). Each needs the other to survive: ‘Mr Nicholas’ can drive, ride a motorbike and fire a gun, but Javed knows the countryside, the routes, the locations which might provide further transport or ammunition.

There are other ways that the parenthood theme emerges, including an agonisingly painful scene near a train track which I won’t spoil for you. There’s even a lovely moment when Javed and Burton’s path is crossed by a troupe of langurs, one of them carrying a baby. That’s almost certainly entirely coincidental, but that doesn’t stop it from being part of the mise-en-scene and thus worthy of critical notice.

Although a journey from Rajasthan to Mumbai could have been a mere picaresque, there is much more to The Dead 2 than that. The relationship between Javed and Burton develops magnificently, both in the action scenes where they fight or escape the undead and in the more talkie bits inbetween where they tell each other about their respective pasts. At the same time, there are the familial relationships between Ishani and her parents. And behind all this we see the outbreak spreading. We don’t really see the breakdown of society as one might expect; rather the establishment of martial law as the army sets up roadblocks, calmly despatching the undead and searching for victims who have been bitten but not yet turned. Beyond a few brief phone conversations with Max, we have no real concept of the bigger picture – as nor do any of our characters.

I’ve never been to India (though I do live in Leicester: largest Indian population in the UK by percentage; biggest Diwali celebrations outside India itself; best damn curries anywhere – and of course I’m not just a fan of Bollywood films, I’ve also been in one). The Dead 2 is a long, long, lo-o-ong way from Bollywood, but my point is that I can only judge its depiction of India – the countryside, the cities, the people – on the basis of what I know at this remove. Although most of the cast and crew were local, this is perforce an outsider’s interpretation of India. But hey, so was Slumdog Millionaire and that won eight Academy Awards.

In fact there’s probably a great degree thesis to be written sometime by someone comparing Danny Boyle’s unavoidably westernised version of India with that of the Ford Brothers (or indeed with other western cinematic depictions of the country such as Sabu the Elephant Boy or – my all-time favourite film ever – The Man Who Would Be King).

There are actual Indian zombie features. Last year’s Leicester zombie fest screened Krishna DK and Raj Nidimoru’s Goa Goa Gone which was tremendous fun. There’s also Devaki Singh and Luke Kenny’s Rise of the Zombie which was an unofficial remake of Andrew Parkinson's 1998 indie I, Zombie! A third movie which attempted to become ‘India’s first zombie film', Navdeep Singh’s zom-com Rock the Shaadi, fell apart during post-production and has disappeared into limbo.

Goa Goa Gone was an Indian spin on the established western zombie genre – and I suspect the other two films are too – but not actually a film about India. In that respect, it’s very, very different to The Dead 2 which is more interested in exploring its characters, its setting, and its relationships – especially the post-colonial relationship that Burton has with the country – than in simply putting new or recycled zombie gags into an Indian setting. You could actually argue that The Dead 2: India is a more Indian film than many actual Indian films. Colonialism and post-colonialism are part of India’s culture and history and the Ford Brothers explore them here in fascinating and powerful ways in this feature.

Howard J Ford is credited as producer and director (also editor), Jon Ford as DoP and co-director, with ‘Screenplay by The Ford Brothers’.  Darkest Day director Dan Rickard provided the ‘special and visual effects’, as he did for the first film, while Stuart Browne (A Day of Violence) and Max Van De Banks (The Dead, Soul Searcher, Harmony’s Requiem, Siren Song) were responsible for the ‘special make-up FX’. All are excellent. The score is once again by Imran Ahmad (whose other credits include the BBC Radio 4 version of The Martian Chronicles). The three executive producers are Brighton-based chartered accountant Amir Moallemi, plus Miles Ketley and Josephine Rose (former Head of Acquisitions and Development at Goldcrest, who recently co-produced In the Dark Half) both of media law firm Wiggin.

After its festival run, The Dead 2: India was released in the States in September 2014 as just The Dead 2. Curiously, the July 2015 UK release carries the variant title The Dead 2: In India on the sleeve, although the original title is on screen. Slightly disappointing is the absence of a Making Of, something which would have been much more interesting for this film than for many of the production-line pictures that do bother with a bland featurette. But no matter: I review films, not DVDs.

Both The Dead films are absolutely top-notch: serious, powerful, thought-provoking, thoughtful movies that really use the zombie genre instead of just playing with it. You should watch both.

MJS rating: A

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