What the Spierig Brothers’ Undead lacks in budget and some aspects of execution, it makes up in pure ingenuity. No doubt the complaints that have already been levied against this movie — it was filmed in 2001 and has already been released on DVD in its home country of Australia — are valid; it tries far too hard to be a cult sensation, it is stylized to the point of absurdity, and there are several times when it becomes, quite simply, irritationg. No doubt, too, we wish it had the dignity to take its story with atleast a modicum of seriousness, even though the opening titles — appearing out of a cloud of smoke in the sort of WordArt font we might have seen before even Night of the Living Dead — announce its intentions right off the bat. But the Spierigs’ zombie movie conceit, and some of the imagery they create as they tell their story, got my imagination racing and occasionally even my heart pounding. Say what you will about the way Undead looks, sounds and feels; it tells a good story. Someone else might have told it better, but what the hell.
I am not exactly sure what sort of budget the Spierig Brothers had to put this movie together, but all signs — including the helpful information that the special effects were created on their Pentium II home computers — point to “miniscule.” As such, one cannot help but be impressed by the sheer professionalism of the production: I don’t know if the washed out color palette was an intentional stylistic move or a result of budgetary limitations, but it looks precisely like the sort of almost-black-and-white aesthetic that was all the rage with Hollywood directors right about the time this movie was filmed (you still see it now and then). And if the effects are murky — at certain points I had trouble figuring out what, exactly, I was looking at — they are notable for their ambition; the Spierigs don’t settle for merely fake blood and guts (thouigh there are plenty of those too). Elaborating would require spoilers, so I’ll just say that Undead does not remain within the confines of zombie movie conventions.
There is the unfortunate matter of the Cult Movie approach, which results in characters with pointless quirks, misplaced humor, and generally a seeming refusal to take anything at face value. This would be understandable if the film looked unmistakably chintzy and the directors wanted to deflect criticism, but as Undead happens to have a lot going for it, the constant joking and posturing becomes a serious problem. There is a point, late in the film, when a major (and fairly nifty) plot revelation is followed immediately by a stupid, sophomoric one-liner, and the mood shatters. There is a feeling here, as in some of Tarantino’s work, that the filmmakers do not believe in their material, and that’s a shame.
The question I am faced with, then, is whether or not, by refusing to lend their story legitimacy, the Spierigs have invalidated it. I lean toward the negative. Creativity is creativity, and the movie was legitimate enough to, essentially despite itself, provide a genuine thrill at least a couple of times. And the fact that, instead of scoffing at the plot, I found myself wishing that the filmmakers wouldn’t, is an indication of something good.
Though perhaps not as interesting as Land of the Dead, this summer’s other zombie movie, Undead is every bit as creative. It’s an impressive effort, not beholden to anything or anyone, made for pennies but looking like a million bucks (give or take). And another thing: how often do you see Australian genre flicks? I submit not very.