Review/Interview: Ford Brothers Film 'The Dead' Captivating, Breathtaking And Eerie As Hell
October 7th, 2011 3:30pm EDT
With the zombie genre having been done to death (or un-death!), it takes a truly special and unique talent to make horror weary audiences take notice – meet The Ford Brothers. They’re two successful commercial directors who decided one day to go back to their first love of making a zombie picture with sass and class and the end result is the emotionally arresting new film "The Dead." Centering on an American engineer who finds himself stranded in undead ridden Africa, the movie shows a real creative force in filmmaking via the two writer/directors. Actually shooting the ambitious film in Africa with nothing but balls and buckets of blood, "The Dead" harks back to the Romero school of zombie pacing and mood and proves to be one terrifying ride indeed. To celebrate it’s release (it’s opening Oct. 7 in twenty select cities from Global Cinema Distribution – click HERE for theater details!) we’re reviewing the effecting flick, plus also going one-on-one with the two super cool Ford Bros. who talk about everything from shooting in the barren Africa to creating such memorable blood and gore effects in a foreign land. But first up – the review!
Title: "The Dead"
Cast: Rob Freeman, Prince David Oseia, David Dontoh
Director: Howard J. Ford & Jon Ford
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Company: Global Cinema Distribution
A lot of elements can make or break a horror flick, not to mention the done-to-death zombie picture. The beauty of "The Dead" is how it refreshingly trims the unneeded movie fat and simply savors the best elements that the genre is famous for in the first place. Steeped in major monster mood, glorious gore and lush African landscape, this is an undead picture that tweaks the cinematic senses.
Rob Freeman stars as American Air Force engineer Brian Murphy, a survivor from a crashed flight that was the last evacuation out of war-torn and zombie infested African lands. Faced with little hope in unfamiliar territory, he ends up crossing paths with Sergeant Daniel Dembele (played by Prince David Oseia), who is out searching for his missing son. Both with families to live for and a lot of heavy undead terrain to cover, the two men of different cultures must work together to stay alive.
Again, in "The Dead" mood is king. Showered in chillingly quiet moments, infested by slow moving zombies and filled with a ton of unsettling scares, the film keeps the subject matter in a dark place. It’s an interesting and ironic choice that works, especially considering the setting is a bright sun blazing Africa. And the two unknown and seemingly ordinary leads only serve to strengthen the validity of the piece. Scared and desperate, Brian and Daniel are each every bit the everyman – they are us and it ups the ante. Not that the film isn't without emotional pain (family loss twice, dead and undead, does take its toll!) and moving moments (the final sequences match any Anthony Minghella film hands down!), but the tapestry laid down by the Ford Brothers is not just a throw back to the Romero era, but almost a slow and calculated examination of it.
Captivating, breathtaking, and eerie as hell, "The Dead" is a fine addition to an already rich genre. But above all hats off to the duo behind the dead– good to see that attention to departed detail is alive and well.
Want more insight into the African world of the walking dead? Well, grab a gun or knife and aim for the head, here’s...
WRITER/DIRECTORS HOWARD J. FORD & JON FORD
I read that the two of you decided to leave a successful career making award-winning commercials to purse the zombie movie desire within – what prompted such a bold move?
Jon Ford: For me from the very beginning the reason I got into filmmaking was to make this zombie movie. That’s an honest to god answer, which people find hard to believe, but that’s really it. After seeing Romero’s original "Dawn of the Dead," I always wanted to make a zombie movie. So we learned filmmaking and we followed this filmmaking path and fell into commercials, which make good money.
Howard J. Ford: I think we might have been thirteen or fourteen years old when we first saw Romero’s "Dawn of the Dead" and it blew us away. And we really wanted to do a zombie movie at the time, but in a way thankfully we didn't cause it would have been awful. And then somehow we drifted into commercials and stared getting a career doing a lot of them – a hundred and forty odd adverts. Every three to six months Jon would mention, ‘What about the zombie movie we never did?’ And I wanted to do it, but we actually were getting paid quite well to be filmmakers. But we ended up in Africa shooting adverts in Ghana, Nigeria and places like that and we saw these incredible locations like these village houses and we were like, ‘We gotta do a movie there!’ I can't remember who said it, but we were like, ‘Hold on a second - what about the zombie movie?’ And I remember my heart almost gave out. To make something with such a deeper meaning – let’s just close the production company doors and do it!
What was the scariest part of shooting there?
(They both laugh)
HF: Almost being killed and mugged at knifepoint on the first day! It was the first day and two guys with hunting knives came out and then I was used as a human shield! Because after the guys with the knives had taken my cards, cash and everything, some guys who were guarding a bank who had wooden clubs came over to have a go at the muggers. And then all of sudden the muggers got behind me, using me to get in the way, so I thought hold on, this is not going well!
JF: And it actually got worse from there on in. We dealt with, on a regular basis, police with AK-47’s and they would point them in our direction. There were so many scary moments on the thing. But astonishingly enough for all the life-threatening dangers that we encountered, the biggest horror for me was that I knew all these things were impacting the script. I knew they were tearing pages out of the script and that was to me by far the worse thing. At some points I almost didn't care if I got killed…
HF: I have to say Jon and I were incredibly ill and we shot in between bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. It was horrible.
JF: Having regular bouts of severe food poisoning, strange diseases, the heat – god knows where they came from? It was horrific.
HF: And one of the really bad moments - Rob Freeman lead actor collapsed on set. What turned out to be Cerebral Malaria, which is pretty much the most dangerous form. Instead of when some actors go back for a massage in their trailer, he ended up lying on a table covered in his own sh#t for ten hours! It was horrible to see him like that. I remember standing in the foyer of the hospital and through the translator being told he was being treated, but he still may die within two to three days. I was thinking I’m gonna kill the lead actor – that is a fare weight on the shoulders.
What was the best or the most pleasantly surprising part?
HF: Well, what felt good about this movie was firstly it’s a journey movie through villages and locations you’ll never get in any other movie, because no one has shot there before. So all the people in the villages are people of those villages; those are their homes, their clothes, their families. They’ve never seen cameras before - they don’t have electricity or running water. Yet here they are happy to be apart of our crazy project, they didn't question what we were doing.
JF: The surprising thing for me was that they did the zombie thing so well. They took to it without batting an eyelid. I thought they were going to look at us as if we were crazy.
You seem to have a Coen-esk kind of filmmaking collaboration – how would you describe your process in making a film together?
HF: It’s always worked - people gave us the Ford Brothers title. I’ve directed and Jon DOP hundred of commercials. We worked as sort of a team even back then. The Ford Brothers thing came about naturally in a way – hey, we’ll get the Ford Brothers to do that! And we started saying we should use this Ford Brothers thing, if people are calling us it.
JF: Being brothers, obviously we grew up watching the same movies and you develop an artistic shorthand. You can say one sentence that will cover three hours of conversation to make a point – which is a great time saver. But even though we think along the same lines artistically, we’re actually chalk and cheese personality wise. It’s a good cop/bad cop kind of thing. Howard’s the good cop - I’m the bad cop. So any ass kicking needs doing...(they both laugh)...I do all that sort of stuff! But one will balance the other; Howard’s more mainstream and I’m slightly more oddball indie underground cinema.
HF: Though we both share the camera operating, so we jump on and off the camera with the same style – but we have our moments.
Your choice to go old school with slow zombie movement is inspiring – though what are the challenges of making that choice scary?
JF: For me, in that route if you’re talking scariest, I think it’s the easier route. The slow moving zombie to me – this may just be a matter of taste – are scarier. We discussed the fast moving zombies and the new "Dawn of the Dead" was great and "28 Days Later" is just fantastic. We love those films, but it fell into action scenes.
HF: When you got fast moving zombies, the way you have to film some zombie running at you becomes action and really action isn't as powerful a tool as suspense.
JF: You can't build the fear up and crank it up. With the action it’s slam-bang and that’s it and there’s nowhere to go after that.
HF: First and foremost, "The Dead" is really a journey movie, but hopefully a beautiful movie. Hopefully one that takes it’s time, it’s gentle and it shows you the scenery. I hope that it doesn't just scare people, but that it touches people in the heart and they feel something emotionally.
JF: Apart from the dead coming back to life, we wanted to base the movie in the realms of reality. It could never ring true with us that something that has died and rigor mortis sets in would be sprinting after you like an athlete.
You mix some different style elements throughout the film – who were some of your influences?
HF: Oddly enough, Sergio Leone was the single biggest influence. Romero, of course for the actual subject matter. And there were movies like "The Wages of Fear" (Le Salaire de la peur), the movie where they’re going across the desert with nitroglycerine in a truck.
JF: And "The Adventures of Michael Strogoff." I remember watching that as a kid and these things have ingrained something in our minds.
Your lead actors seem like average guys and it’s what gives the film an added urgency – was this by design?
HF: Yes – absolutely. Really early on these guys had to be just non-heroes – they were not going to be a hero.
JF: Not chiseled-chin, muscle-bound Rambo types who are gonna kick their way through everything. And you think James Bond or Rambo, they're not gonna die. Brian - he’s an ordinary guy who you can relate to.
HF: On the plane he’s a character in the background – he doesn’t do anything on the plane to help anyone. Almost a selfish character, a fearful character and, without giving too much of the plot away, he actually learns a lot from the Africans he encounters in the way they are with each other. It’s a journey in that respect for him. And it’s also about two guys from very different cultures banding together in a traumatic situation.
Your blood and gore effects are highly memorable – was it hard to do them successfully while shooting in a foreign country?
JF: Oh yes! I remember we shipped in a load of severed heads, arms, legs and god knows what else and it raised a few eyebrows at customs I can tell you that! When we got on set and I opened up the boxes and got them out, the locals had all gathered around to wonder what we were opening. When they saw the severed heads and arms, they just ran screaming into the bushes! We had great fun with that! But it’s as tough as hell because there’s nowhere you can go to get more effects, more foam latex or more blood stuff – you just had to make do with what you had.
HF: Just to show you how bizarre the situations we were filming in were, one of the village huts that we were shooting in – we did some low angle shots in a hut – the translator said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t touch the pots around the side of the hut. They contain the remains of dead relatives.’ And you’re thinking this is so weird – we’re filming something called "The Dead" and we’re quite literally surrounded by death. Very odd experience.
What’s next for you two and are you going to stay within the genre or branch out into other areas?
JF: People have often said would you go back and maybe do a sequel to this one and in a way there were so many things we had to tear out of the script, so I feel that I haven't quite finished. The itch is not fully scratched! There were some amazing scenes that broke our hearts to tear out...
HF: Something with the baby. Without giving too much, there’s something that happens with the baby and didn’t.
JF: But to me I don't know if doing a zombie movie would be the right move next – maybe the one after. But we’re gonna see how this one does first and go from there.
HF: If people support "The Dead" by coming to see the film and buying a ticket, and we’re very grateful for those that do, then it will enable us to do another and possibility even to do a sequel because there seems to be a fair demand for a sequel now from fan sites. But I think we’ll do a genre film every other movie because I hope in the time we’ve been doing our commercials and other stuff, we’ve been able to tackle any subject matter and feel confident in that. But we love horror as well – I reckon one on, one off!
"THE DEAD" OPENS IN SELECT CITIES ON OCT.7 FROM GLOBAL CINEMA DISTRIBUTION
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Photo Credits: Photos Courtesy of Global Cinema Distribution