Zone of the Dead (aka Apocalypse Of The Dead) Movie Review
Written by Miloš Jovanović
Directed by Milan Todorović and Milan Konjević
Written by Vukota Brajovic, Milan Konjević and Milan Todorović
2009, Not rated
Ken Foree as Agent Mortimer Reyes
Kristina Klebe as Agent Mina Milius
Emilio Roso as The Prisoner
Miodrag Krstović as Agent Belić
Vukota Brajović as Armageddon
During a NATO military exercise held in Serbia, a horrific accident happens with potentially long-lasting effects. At an isolated train station near Belgrade, the state capital, there is a dangerous leak of toxic gas which was in routine transit via railway carriage. The gas, it seems, not only kills people, but turns them into bloodthirsty zombies as well. The only survivor at the scene is an unnamed university professor (Steve Agnew), who manages to take refuge at the nearby police station.
As that is happening, another important event is taking place elsewhere in Serbia. Interpol agents, lead by veteran agents Reyes (Ken Foree) and Belić (Miodrag Krstović), aided by the rookie officer Milius (Kristina Klebe), are preparing a transport of a mysterious prisoner (Emilio Roso).The prisoner, held captive in the vicinity of Panćevo (a stone's throw from Belgrade), is to be shuttled to London via a plane from Belgrade. The transport hits a snag when undead show up, and before you know it, Interpol agents strike an uneasy truce with the prisoner, in order to save their lives. As they join the professor, as well as some stray journalists who also happened to be in the neighbourhood, in the police station, it becomes obvious that something really dreadful is going on out there, and that the battle for survival has begun.
Zone of the Dead is a rather peculiar project. First announced sometime in 2005 or 2006, it was originally envisioned by Milan Todorović and Vukota Brajović as a small fan venture paying homage to great zombie classics of yore. For a while, the script was doing the rounds and for a long time the project looked dead, until Italian freelance producer Loris Curci stepped in and revitalized the whole deal. Curci is no stranger to the genre, as he is the man behind numerous featurettes on Argento — and other cult directors — that pop up on AB special edition discs. He promptly recruited noone else but Dawn of the Dead alumnus Ken Foree, and the picture, now reinforced by a veteran comic book writer Milan Konjević, was in full gear yet again.
So you might ask yourself now, was it necessary to pit the original zombie slayer Foree versus the living dead again after 30 years? The answer is yes, as Zone of the Dead is a pretty decent genre effort which will definitely satisfy zombie fans, but also lend its appeal to the casual crowd. Unusually well written characters (for the genre, that is), as well as some competent filmmaking and decent starpower will propel Zone a long way above the casual z-movie foder, hopefully making a lightly bigger impact in the worldly market than anticipated.
The setup, like in most zombie movies, is nothing to write home about. Inspired by the dire ecological situation in his hometown, Milan Todorović, who co-scripted and co-directed, has opted for a biohazard-ish hook to this story, in which he merges the fortunes of several key characters. In this aspect, Zone of the Dead strays away from the traditional "Romero conventions" into John Carpenter territory — and indeed, most of the film seems to draw inspiration from films such as The Thing and, especially, Assault on Precinct 13 and Ghosts of Mars (the whole "prisoner ally" thing is rather liberally lifted from the latter two). While it might be hard work for some to disassociate this film from Romero Dead movies comparison due to the fact we have Mr. Foree in the lead role killing zombies, there is rather little common between Zone of the Dead and (random) of the Dead from ol' uncle George's oeuvre. This is, essentially, an action film with zombies. Later in the film, a thinly veiled political subplot comes to surface, but this will likely be lost on non-Serbian viewers, as it's rich with local references, so it's safe to say that we may bill this as a pure actioner.
Visually, the film is very competently handled. Todorović, a graduate of Serbian national film academy, makes only few rookie mistakes and showcases his expert framing, and his flair for action shows in efficiently executed camera movements. The co-director, Milan Konjević, adds a comic book sensibility to some action scenes, with his touch filling in where Todorović left off. The majority of the combat set-pieces are shot in a dynamic, shakey-cam manner, and are distinguished by rapid (but well done) cuts. This style will undoubtedly have its fans as well as its detractors, but on the overall, it works — the shakes create extra sense of tension, and in those parts Zone of the Dead resembles Kitamura's Versus, which employed a similar style. Shot on HD, the film's first two thirds take place during the night, only to launch a frenzied action-packed finale which unfolds in daytime — the HD camera makes the nighttime scenes a bit too sharp to my taste, but daylight looks real good shot this way, as there is a slight sepia tint added for grindhouse flavour. Kudos must also go to makeup/FX maestro Miroslav Lakobrija — much like Tom Savini did in the past, Lakobrija creates miracles on a severely limited budget, and his zombies look rather hungry and ferocious.
While in the past zombie films have been blessed with largely indifferent acting performances, this is not the case here. At the forefront we have Ken Foree, who is a towering presence, and not only because of his height. Foree, three decades removed from his iconic performance in Dawn of the Dead, portrays a complex character dealing with serious inner strife (the very first shot of Ken shows him swallowing a handful of what I assume might be tranquilizers, while silently gazing into a framed photo of a lost somebody). He still is very hazardous for the zombie population, but more than just settling for a Charles Bronson-like show, Foree adds some veteran guile to his act and comes across rather believeable. In such regard, it's easy to draw comparison between Ken Foree and John Wayne here — observe Foree from Dawn of the Dead and Zone of the Dead, and Wayne from, say, Hondo and The Shootist or True Grit, and you'll see what I mean.
Foree is aided by a veteran Serbian character actor Miodrag Krstović, who is a new face for the international audiences. Krstović is a good foil, both physically and otherwise, to Foree, and the two look like a perfectly matched team, especially as the events start unfolding. While Foree's character has to deal with mental issues at times, Krstović radiates with controlled calm, despite the grim look on his face. The lead twosome is augmented by Kristina Klebe (you'll remember her from Rob Zombie's Halloween) and a relative newcomer Emilio Roso. Klebe does a very good job as a rookie Interpol cop looking to impress, while Roso is arguably the revelation of this film — a hitherto unknown actor, Roso plays his role with much gusto and succesfully conveys the "mystery" element of his character. The fifth main role is the one of Vukota Brajović, who plays a religious lunatic who interprets the whole mayhem as an end of the world thing and gets into a full-on clash with the undead brigades. Brajović, who looks rather intimidating with his military-styled looks, is mostly present in action set-pieces, save for a few loony speeches and Bible quotes he seems to spout about — as such, his role works perfectly.
Of course, the film is not without its faults. While the script is good for the most part (bear in mind it was written in Serbian, then translated, then adapted to characters), some segments fall rather flat — midway through the film, Klebe and Krstović engage in a dialog which should have been emotional and distressing, but neither emotion really delivers. Also, as it's often the case with ensemble casts stuck at one place, you wind up not caring about certain characters — there is some obvious zombie fodder within this group (most notably Iskra Brajović who plays a party-going pothead stuck with the rest), and Ariadna Cabrol and Marko Janjić are largely forgettable. On occasions, the directors overplay their hand and stage some silly moments (there is a slow-mo shot of Roso gliding through the air Chow Yun-Fat style which was best left on the cutting room floor), and the climax might feel a bit rushed upon closer inspection.
Still, hats off to the production team for making a decent zombie film in the end. Coming from the country with no horror or zombie tradition whatsoever, Zone of the Dead might be a start of something new, something fresh. With its sharp action set pieces and some subtle nods to horror greats (there is a great Dawn of the Dead joke towards the end), Zone of the Dead is a surefire hit for the target audiences worldwide.
Video, audio and special features will not be graded, as this is a screener.
With Ken Foree as the first billing and Todorović and Konjević steering the ship into right direction, this could be a start of a new age in Serbian cinema.
Want to comment on this review? You can leave one below or head over to the HorrorTalk Review Forum.
© 2009 HorrorTalk.com. No use of this review is permitted without expressed permission from HorrorTalk.com.