The Dead is one of the most visually stunning zombie films I have ever seen. It's like Zombie Lawrence of Arabia. Set and shot entirely in the African deserts using mostly local actors, The Dead is a simple zombie tale of an American man and an African man venturing across the desert in search of safety after zombies spread across the land. The Dead is the third film from brothers Howard and Jon Ford. In this exclusive interview, we chat about social commentary in zombie flicks, and the good, the bad, and the ugly of shooting in Africa.
The Dead is a very simple, very straightforward plot: zombies are coming, let's get to safety. Why did you decide to go this route?
HF: When we sat down to write the script together, it was based on Jon's notes from many years ago. Originally it was going to be an A to B to C story. There was such a culture, a few years back, of twists and turns in every single plot - zombie-related or not.
JF: The plot twists became the cliche. There was a kind of movie that wasn't being made, and hadn't been made since the 1970s: straight-forward adventure movies. Movies you can follow along without quirky juxtaposition or certain distracting aspects that take away from the linear journey. In real life when you go on a journey, it is linear, and [we wanted] to experience that in a more real-time feeling.
HF: There are contemplative moments, too, and full of loneliness. We also decided not to have a lot of dialogue. When we sat down to write it, if either of us came up with a line of dialogue, and we couldn't justify that line of dialogue, we would cut it.
JF: On the flip side to that, there is actually a very detailed subtext going on, relating to spirituality, there are political messages, social messages, racial messages... we added many layers of subtext. So the movie can be enjoyed on a straightforward level, but for those wanting more, hopefully they can get that, too.
There seemed to be a lot of commentary on apartheid.
HF: There is an element of that in there. I hope that people feel very uncomfortable at certain images. Bodies lying on the ground, the villagers... I hope people are very, very disturbed by that dose of reality. I think people are very astute. They can see that the people in these villages are starving, you can see they are emaciated.
JF: For me, it is also a comment on human beings's place on this planet, overpopulation, and those sorts of problems. The message is a little bleak on that aspect. The racial message is that these two guys from totally different cultures can join together, can unite to fight the common enemy. That one is a more positive message. I think we enjoyed - perhaps more than we should have - these different layers.
Is that why you set the film and shot entirely in Africa?
HF: Not really. Jon had the idea to make a movie about a stranger in a strange land, whatever land that might be. I always wanted to make a living dead movie, having been blown away by Romero's Night of the Living Dead - as was Jon. That's probably his favorite movie. For me, when Africa came up as a suggestion, I was suddenly, completely on board with it.
JF: It had never been done before, so that was an immediate plus.
HF: Plus, I felt like we could say so much more. We could talk about some of the problems in Africa without actually saying it bang on the nose. In other words, I hope this film can work for people who just want a bit of zombie action, but it can work for people who are looking for a deeper meaning. My personal hope is that people feel something in their hearts by the time they get through with the film, not just... you know, have blood thrown around.
What do you think it is about zombie movies specifically that seems to spark so much social commentary?
JF: I think zombies represent our mortality. They are the image of our own physical death. Death can get you at any moment. Maybe quickly, maybe slowly.
HF: I remember as a young child, laying in bed, hearing the sound of my own heart beating, and imagining it was something creeping up on me. I would imagine this thing - awfully morbid, I know - no matter how slowly it was going, it would eventually get me. There is something about zombies... it doesn't matter how slow they are, at some point you've got to eat, at some point you've got to sleep... you can't keep moving forever, especially in a land like Africa, where the architecture - for want of a better word - is so open, and where diseases can spread very rapidly. All of these things came together for me, and we wanted to make a zombie film since we were 11 years old.
So how was it shooting in Africa?
JF: It was the most miserable experience of my entire life, and I hope never to experience anything like that again. It was horrible. We were in dangerous, remote parts of Africa, with no safety net. There was no medical backup; there were no shops you could just go buy food or drink at. The corruption is the worst - you would get whomped by the police on a regular basis. There were tropical diseases - I got malaria, I got food poisoning for a month. We would have discussions on filmmaking, trying to remain artistic while vomiting.
HF: The lead actor, Rob Freeman, nearly died of malaria. He was on an IV drip for two weeks. He was within three days - possibly even two - of being dead. I remember being in the hospital with him on the drip and the doctor saying, "Yeah, he's on the drip but he may die in two days." I thought, "We are actually going to kill people with this film." That was a horrible thought. I was mugged at knifepoint early on, they took all my cash and cards, and the police tried to put me in jail for driving without a license - which was taken from me in the mugging. I actually just finished a book called Surviving the Dead, about all our horrible experiences on set.
One thing to be said for all of it was that all the people in the villages, the real people, the people with uniforms on - they were fantastic. They didn't have electricity in these villages; they didn't have running water; most of them had never seen a camera before. We went into these very remote places and recruited them to play survivors and zombies, and they welcomed it!
JF: They were absolutely fantastic.
HF: I know we're not saving the world, but I feel very privileged to get money directly to people who really needed it. Some of these people - and you can see them in the film - were quite literally starving to death. The guy at the beginning was a real amputee who was begging for money. We come along and all they have to do is walk from A to B and they enjoyed it, and they got paid many, many, many times more than they would doing a local job which would likely include hard labor. So there were some good moments, but it was incredibly tough.
Was there any concern - either on your part or the part of the locals - that they would come across as being exploited?
JF: It's funny that you mention that... we knew that would come up. We knew people would say those types of things. I remember speaking to some of the locals about this, asking them what they thought. I knew some people would make some dumb comments about "white guys shooting black guys in Africa." If you look at it, there are actually several white zombies. There is the one who gets his head squashed - that is me.
HF: I was one of the soldiers who died on the beach fairly early on.
JF: But [the locals] were pleased to be able to make a movie, a popular movie. It was predominantly starring the local guys. 90% of the people were locals. They were so excited to be part of a movie that was purely for entertainment purposes, and wasn't portraying them as poor, starving people who need help. They wanted to show the rest of the world that, when it comes down to it, they can do it too. They can compete in the entertainment business on equal footing with everyone else. They were really happy with the opportunity to show it, and I think they did a really good job. It was about the two cultures coming together, and if you look at it, the Africans are the wiser ones who are more connected spiritually, and are helping one another. Hopefully we portrayed them with respect because we do have respect for them.
What is coming up for you guys? I am guessing you don't really want to do a sequel....
HF: It would take a lot to get us back there, but it is up for discussion. We're going to see how this one does. If enough people buy the DVD and the blu-ray - and we thank them for doing so - it will create the demand for another. If enough people buy it, we are probably going to have to get out there and do it again - or do something like it.
JF: At the moment, I am working on a revenge script - another great passion of mine - so we will see how that goes.