The small finishing town of Berkley, Australia comes under siege by blazing meteoroids that turn the quaint residents into mindless flesh-hungry zombies. A small band of survivors led by the town’s dismayed local beauty queen and a fisherman turned doomsday prepper fight the undead hordes in order to escape the carnage by reaching the city limits, but when faced with an otherworldly monolithic barrier surrounding the town and blocking the exits, a hopeful way out becomes quickly fleeting. To make matters worse, unusual rainstorms drench them with fear of what’s really in the rainwater of the apparent alien attack. In a last-ditch effort, the remaining survivors board a personal prop plane to scale the great extraterrestrial wall that’s imprisoning them with the undead. An onslaught of end of days catastrophes drives their instinct to battle on, to push forth toward living, despite all the evidence of a contrary methodology to the misunderstood, overwhelming alien actions.
A 9-year marriage, three children, the death of my dog, two states, a new home, four jobs, four presidents, and a global pandemic in more than almost two decades’ passing has transpired since the first and last time I saw the Spierig brothers’ 2003 zombie-comedy “Undead” and, still, the 2003 Australian film impresses with a large-scale gore show on a small-scale budget. Before terraforming new vampire words with Ethan Hawke in “Daybreakers” and taking a stab at an entry in the “Saw” franchise with “Jigsaw,” the brothers Michael and Peter Spierig’s first full feature-length venture was an ambitious love letter to their’ most endeared cult films of their youth, more heavily influenced by Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead.” Blowing through the meager budget halfway into filming and shooting an insane 40 to 50 shots per day for the better part of two months, the completion of “Undead” was a must for the self-funding brothers under their production banner of Spierigfilm and the success of “Undead” also jumpstarted the careers of cinematographer Andrew Strahorn (“Hostel III,” “Lethal Weapon” television series), production designer Matthew Putland (“San Andreas”), and special effects artist Julian Summers (“Bait,” “Mortal Kombat” ’21).
“Undead” was the first film for Felicity Mason and Mungo McKay in a lead role as that dismayed local beauty queen, Rene, and that fisherman turned doomsday prepper, Marion, mentioned in the above synopsis. Rene seeks to leave the town of Berkley in the wake of the tragic death of her parents before becoming the burdened beholder of their debt; instead, she thrusted into a crisis that won’t allow her to escape so easily from a destiny laid out for her in hometown. Mason’s humble portrayal of Rene is nearly invisible compared to her more boisterous and gun-fu counterparts but grounds us to an agreeable realism of reactions whereas Marion’s limitless gun-toting out of his fishing overalls and Matrix-like gunplay moves adds that layer of voguish fun of the Chow Yun-fat variety. The other four survivors fall into the run-of-the-mill of yowlers and cutting personality types who throw around their weight and cowardly sarcasms in immediate show of unfounded animosity. Supposedly, a longer cut of “Undead” provides more backstory for father-to-be charter pilot Wayne (Rob Jenkins, “Australiens”) and the law enforcement neophyte Molly (Emma Randall, “Bullets for the Dead”) but the release copy which this review is based off was not of that longer cut. Dirk Hunter supplies a purge of negative comic relief as Harrison, the chief constable without a clue, and Lisa Cunningham’s Sallyanne is Wayne’s antagonizing pregnant lover of bitterness as she comes in second place next to Rene at the local beauty pageant and seizes moments, during all Hell breaking loose, to confront Rene’s rope-wrangling talent that won her the cast prize.
Over the past year, I watched and reviewed another Australian sci-fi horror “Dustwalker” from director Sandra Sciberras where crash landed space objects turned the local dustbowl residents into the resemblance of zombies and connected to the chaos is a not from this world creature. I likened “Dustwalker” to be a lesser, weaker, total rip-off of the Spierigs’ ozploitation rager and I still stand 100% behind my claim as I reaffirm “Undead” to be the reigning supreme champion, and “did it first” as far as story goes, between the two nearly identical narrative plots. There’s an uncrushable affinity for “Undead’s” bold risk of looking at the bigger picture head on and absolutely landing each scene whether in prosthetics or in post with better than your average computer rendered imagery. Are the effects the sleekest, most realistic, graphics you’ve ever seen? Absolutely not but what they are are ultra-rich in creative detail rather than quality detail and can give most substantial budgeted films a run for the money, especially in the closeup shots that can be an obvious slapdash, might as well be silicone, fake. The Spierig brothers also don’t overcomplicate the plot with survivors trying to simply quickly decamp the overran town madness with plot points sensible to character designs and not relying on gratuitous happenstance scenarios for the sake of gore alone. However, do believe me when I say that “Undead” will delight gore geeks with a gut-spilling, face-lifting, head-decapitating mixture of zany zombie knockoffs that are steady throughout. If you’re deciding between the more recent “Dustwalker” and the now almost considered antique 15+ year-old “Undead,” the choice is clear with “Undead’s” superior campy, shoot’em, blood-splattering zombie mayhem.
For U.S. horror viewers looking for something that borders obscurity and might be out of their comfort zone, “Undead” has yet to make an appearance on Blu-ray, surprisingly enough. Only the Lionsgate DVD version is the known, and authorized, copy to be released in America. For those searching high and low, the all-region Blu-ray from the Australian distributor, Umbrella Entertainment, offers a 2-disc alternative with a new 1080p, Full High-Definition, release as volume # 12 on the company’s World on Film: Beyond Genres banner. The Aussie cult modern classic is presented in a widescreen 1.77:1 aspect ratio and with a runtime of 97 minutes, mirroring the U.S. DVD length which is a bit disappointing as longer cuts of the film do exist on other European releases. Day scenes play into an agreeable enough flat, more natural, color scheme with some serious grain in the 16mm film stock use, moving the photography toward a retro de-aged semblance courtesy of Spierigs’ cult film homage, but the darker scenes, mostly through a moderately intense blue filter, sees the unstable pixelation flareups, especially in black blank spaces and I’m taken aback by the lack of touchup to clear up any stylized misgivings. Umbrella offers two audio options – an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and an English 2.0 DTS-HD Stereo. Paired with an excellent soundtrack, the audio tracks do “Undead” complete justice without a smidgen of lossy fidelity. With plenty of action to go around – firearm discharges, explosions, zombie grunts/groans/sneers, and sundry of miscellaneous and oddball effects – each elemental output is distinct and clear. The dialogue renders nicely as well. Umbrella holds a few exclusive and rehashed special features that include an audio commentary from Peter and Michael Spierig and cinematographer Andy Strahorn, a raw video behind-the-scenes look on the set of “Undead,” the more production quality making of “Undead,” “Attack of the Undead” short films from the Spierig brothers that inspired the feature, home-made Dolly Video, the camera and makeup tests, still gallery, and theatrical trailer. Plus, an exclusive Simon Sherry illustrated art on the front covers of the snap case and the cardboard slipcover along with reversal DVD cover art and a second disc containing the complete 17-track soundtrack from Cliff Bradley. The rating is listed as an Australian certified MA 15+ for horror theme, medium level violence. which sounds severely tamer than it is for the more recent video nasty with all its zombies punching holes through hapless skulls, bloody brain munching, gooey face ripping, and severed torsos with spine exposures.