In most zombie films, the whys and the wherefores of the undead are beside the point. There might be references to meteor showers, overcrowding in Hell, government experiments, or the bite of a Sumatran rat-monkey, but on the whole their power lies in absurd imagery and an unreasoning sense of nightmare. It doesn’t matter why the protagonists’ family and friends have turned into staggering corpses intent on taking large bites out of the living. What matters is getting as many of the main characters as possible out of the situation alive and unbitten, usually by physically destroying the zombies with as much gore as possible.
Undead is different, and that difference is what makes it appealing. While no Romero inspired masterpiece, this film is definitely worth a look. It starts out like many other zombie films. There’s a brief montage of something hitting something else in space, but once that’s out of the way the story plunges quickly to earth and into the pre-apocalyptic world of Berkeley, a bucolic little Australian town where children play cricket in the park and everyone seems to know everyone else by their first name.
Rene (Felicity Mason) is sitting in a bank office getting the bad news about her childhood farm, recently inherited from her parents along with a crushing weight of debt, now irretrievably lost. Wayne (Rob Jenkins), an expectant father and a bush pilot, is reading a book on fatherhood in between flights, and Mollie (Emma Randall) an eager-beaver rookie cop, is starting her first day with her bad-tempered partner, Harrison (Dirk Hunter.)
Suddenly a shower of meteorites cuts through the clear blue sky, punching holes in various bystanders and transforming every human they touch into brain-munching revenants. Rene’s plan to start life anew in the big city is interrupted not only by the undead, but by swirling dark clouds overhead and rain-showers that cause her clothing to smoke. Along with Wayne, his bulgingly pregnant wife Sallyanne (Lisa Cunningham), Mollie and Harrison, she finds refuge in the remote house of the local crackpot, Marion, (Mungo McKay), a bearded, strong silent type in overalls who combines the acrobatics of an Ang Lee Kung Foo fighter with the kind of firepower only someone who runs "Marion’s House of Weapons" could manage.
Telling more of the plot would give too much away. Suffice it to say that the viewer and the characters quickly realize there is something more going on than a garden-variety attack by an army of the walking dead. Directors Peter and Michael Spierig’s imaginative screenplay offers both a broadly funny Australian spin and a unique attempt to make sense out of the senseless conventions of zombie films.
Felicity Mason is not just appealing, but charismatic, with expressive eyes that are watchful rather than vulnerable. Mungo McKay is low-keyed and funny as the man of action who thinks he, and he alone, has a handle on everything that’s happening, and the rest of the cast, especially Dirk Hunter as a cop who seems to cope by screaming invective, act out their own individual versions of hysteria to good comic effect.
Undead has everything a good zombie film should have and a little more. The special effects and make-up are nothing to write home about, but the story is so original that after seeing it, many audience members are unlikely to ever watch a "living dead" film in quite the same way.