Zone of the Dead, which on the disc I have is called Apocalypse of the Dead, is a 2009 film directed by a pair of Serbians; Milan Konjevic and Milan Todorovic, and stars Ken Foree from 1978’s Dawn of the Dead.
It’s 1985 in Yugoslavia and construction workers have unearthed a couple of 300-year-old victims of the plague. However, when one of the men accidentally cuts himself on one of the skeletons (there’s no explanation as to how this was achieved), he died within hours… then rises again.
The film then cuts to the present day and a military operation is taking place with badly-dubbed actors at a train station watching a biohazard-suited unit turn up to enter the military exclusion zone. A gormless bunch of soldiers looking to give their friend a good time have wandered up the tracks and start to mess around with a station guard, grabbing his gun. It accidentally goes off, hitting a tanker of hazardous material, which like all ruptured containers in good zombie films starts leaking bright green gas, killing those that breathe it in.
Meanwhile, a prisoner is being taken from a prison to Belgrade by a mysterious, smartly dressed woman, flanked by a CIA agent, the kind of agent who is prefaced by ‘Don’t you know who he is?’ They’re going to have to drive there without GPS, because of the ‘military exercise’ taking place. However, what this ‘military exercise’ is, or why GPS and mobile communication would therefore not work isn’t discussed at all. This is going to be a recurring problem.
Back at the train station, one guy is still alive and is now facing the horror of the dead chasing him down the train tracks, because instead of running away from the leaking tank, he just sticks around shouting into thin air before deciding for himself that ‘the poison’s gone’. Elsewhere in the town, the zombie plague is spreading and a mysterious guy who has somehow been locked up in a convent and looks like he knows his way around a machete decides to deliver the wrath of God to the hapless undead. However, we’ve got some vital dialogue to get back to in the car – which consists of ‘so who is this convict we’re moving?’ ‘I can’t tell you that, it’s highly classified’ – so what or who the convent guy (who likes to spout things like ‘cut off the serpent’s head and the body will die’) is or the prisoner will remain a complete mystery.
In a short scene with the President we find out something called ‘Operation Blacksmoke’ has been running since the plague bodies were found, to isolate a mutated bacteria that can bring dead cells back to life. But we’re cut off again after this brief explanation to see the CIA dude and his group drive into the infection area and find people running from the zombies (I say people, there are about three). This provokes a strangely muted reaction from everybody, especially the CIA agent who just says ‘let’s just get to the car and move on’. Yeah, everything will be fine. Especially when you just stand and stare at them rather than shooting them in the head.
The convict seems to be having the time of his life whilst everybody stands around chatting about what they should do with him instead of BLOODY RUNNING AWAY. Eventually, after an age, the group get into a police station, but why it would be any less full of zombies than outside when all the lights are off and there’s clearly no living people around I haven’t got a clue – but I’m not a legendary CIA agent, so what do I know.
In the prison cells they find more ‘sane’ people as they’re described, whilst out on the streets the one man fighting machine is taking out all the zombies he comes across ‘with the flaming strength of the Lord’. He’s a damn sight more interesting, but we have to put up with more pointless bickering and chat from the police station group, one of whom is more upset by the fact he dropped his video camera rather than the dead walking the earth, which he considers ‘the most important thing to have happened since the beginning of civilization’. There’s just absolutely no tension at all, and very boring camerawork. There are whole periods of unnecessary chat with no atmospheric music, and the zombies once the group is in the police station stop banging on the doors and just wander off, so there’s no howling or sounds of mayhem. It’s not much of a police station either; clearly they couldn’t afford much because it looks like a school gym with a few tables in it.
Finally the zombies appear, which is what I thought the film was supposed to be about, but again the zombie sounds stop when the group has more of a chat in the central room. And not about what on earth is going on, or how they’re going to get out, just random rubbish. They then see on a monitor the soldier from God trying to broadcast to the outside world what is happening, which consists of ‘seeing a city lapped with dark waters’, and other meaningless drivel, which for some utterly bazaar reason makes one girl freak out and open the barricaded door to let the zombies in. Another professor decides that this is retribution for something to do with how our civilization has developed, and stays there to die, whilst the others finally try to make their escape towards the river to steal a boat. One guy suggests a shopping mall, presumably a nod to Foree’s previous zombie-based outings, but Ken’s learned a thing or two and quickly dismisses it with ‘they’ll get in anyway’.
The convict seems to know a lot more than you may expect about these zombies, and it turns out Chernobyl wasn’t a mere accident, it was a result of the previous outbreak and the area was deliberately nuked, which is what’s going to happen again if they don’t get out quickly enough. Unfortunately, there’s only one route to the boat, and between the escapees and their escape vessel, which they somehow know is there and has the keys in it, are a strange collection of zombies lying on the ground in rows. This is quite a cool shot, I’ll give them that, but why in the name of all that is holy, would they try and walk through them? Obviously this is what the CIA guy decides to do, ready to sprint if anything happens. I never knew choreography and call and response was a zombie strong point, but after a bellow from a lookout zombie the rest all rise up and take chase.
Unfortunately, one of the surviving members of the group is a spineless little gimp, and despite thinking earlier that this was the bees’ knees he’s suddenly decided he’s not that keen on being chased by corpses after all and takes off with the boat, but luckily the God warrior turns up with the line ‘smells like the end of days’ to rescue the troupe and start firing rockets, machine guns and all sorts of other weaponry he has just happened to find lying around, when the others couldn’t even find ammo in a police station.
Eventually all the zombies are dead and the convict is let go by the agents, and we never find out what the point of him was. Or the Angel of Death soldier, the tanker of gas, or why some of the zombies sprinted and made tyrannosaurus rex-style snarls, whilst other zombies were just happy to ramble around sticking their arms out.
There are a lot of problems with this film, with a lot of effort and time spent on pointless dialogue and theological musings on what the meaning of the zombies is, when: 1) there’s absolutely no need, because we know why there are zombies, it was a genetic experiment gone wrong; 2) there are far better things to be discussing such as what on earth you’re going to do; and 3) I want to who the hell people are. The agents treat their prisoner like he’s the most dangerous man on the planet. Why? I never find out, and that’s annoying.
The second problem is what I mentioned before, and that is it’s just not that well shot. There were clearly restraints on budget, but in that case keep things tight and confined. You don’t need that many zombies if there’s only a small corridor for them to get down, but to just not bother with zombie sounds when they’re supposed to be battering down the doors is quite poor. As well as this, there was just a complete lack of shock, surprise, anger, or natural response from the characters to having their lives threatened.
Zone of the Dead unfortunately can just be summed up as a wan attempt at a zombie film, with passionless acting, no dramatic tension, and a story so full of holes I’m surprised an actor who was in one of the most well known zombie films of all time went anywhere near it.