Movie Review: Anger of the Dead
Director: Francesco Picone
Writer: Francesco Picone
Stars: Aaron Stielstra, Michael Segal, Marius Bizau, Roberta Sparta
Anger of the Dead is one of those zombie movies that remind us of all that is good and bad with the genre. The film’s inherent contradiction stems from established franchises reduced to cheap knockoffs that are typically viewed through an ironic eye (if viewed at all). Think Paranormal Activity stripped and repackaged as Paranormal Entity. Did you enjoy 2012’s Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter? Well, the studio behind Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies surely hoped to bank off Vampire Hunter’s success. So why do we watch these carbon copies? Is it for cheap thrills? Most likely, but it’s hard to argue that these films are in contention for serious consideration and analysis. They are simply the difference between a roller coaster with 6 loops and coaster with none at all, but we’re happy to ride both.
But Anger of the Dead doesn’t fit neatly into either category. The proliferation of zombie films and TV shows in the later aughts, already building on decades of Romero and post-Romero stylish film-making, leaves Anger of the Dead in the space between cheap knockoff and “please-take-my-movie-seriously” original film. Zombie fans will watch this film and see elements extracted from The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead, and even The Last of Us (yes, the very successful 2013 video game). But those elements are not necessarily paying tribute to these and other films the way Danny Boyle successfully pays homage to the Sci-Fi Horror genre in his underrated 2007 film Sunshine. Instead, Anger of the Dead tries unsuccessfully to be original and attempts to explore difficult themes underdeveloped in most contemporary zombie films and television shows.
So what’s it about? (Minor spoilers ahead)
The premise is familiar. We meet Alice (Roberta Sparta), who is pregnant and already mother to a young daughter, who receives a frantic phone call from her husband about civil unrest and chaos in the city. The phone line goes dead, and suddenly Alice encounters a zombie inside her home, gnawing at her daughter’s lifeless body. In a panic, Alice flees until she is nearly hit by a car driven by Stephen (Marius Bizau), who offers her refuge echoing the famous Kyle Resse/Sarah Connor scene in Terminator. Four months pass and Stephen, along with Alice, who is nearly 6 months pregnant, hear a radio broadcast that salvation for the living is on an island not far from the coast. They decide to risk it all and head for this location.
Meanwhile, a second narrative introduces us to a female prisoner played by Désirée Giorgetti. She is held captive by unknown soldiers who subject her to torture, rape, and food deprivation. The darker side of this dual narrative film will eventually converge with Alice’s and remind us that humans, not zombies, are the ones to fear.
The great potential of this film cannot be understated. Clearly this movie was made on a modest budget, but Director Francesco Picone manages to create a very stylish, frenetically-paced film. The performances of the cast are also noteworthy and genuine. But even with a very capable opening scene with Alice fleeing the zombie that has just eaten her daughter, the cheap knockoff presents itself with opening credits that are a virtual carbon copy of The Walking Dead's (TWD). The move is both silly and unnecessary. Despite this faux pas, Picone keeps the pace going as our protagonists fight zombies and villains (human, of course) in forest settings that also echo TWD.
Style, sadly, is not enough to save this film. Yes, the performances are noteworthy, but Romanian and Italian accents are met with the strange deep-rooted American southern accent of the film’s villain. Perhaps it's a knockoff of TWD’s Governor, or a familiar sign for American audiences that morally bankrupt villains with southern accents signify the US’s schizophrenic relationship with the South and slavery. Whatever the logic, the accent does not belong in this European film (it's an Italian production!), for the symbolism is a cheap move to equate this American-from-the-South identity with evil.
The other flaw that this film could have explored much more is the treatment of the two women. The Los Angeles Times called Anger of the Dead “misogynistic” for its depiction of rape and torture, and the ultimate fate of our female protagonists in the hands of sex deprived, zealous soldiers (think 28 Days Later). It is no question that these depictions are difficult to watch, but if we are to believe that zombie films reflect the anxieties of a culture or a society, and those anxieties are met with violence, then depictions of sexual violence seem like fair game. It would be disingenuous to not explore all violent acts of human nature in such a medium, regardless if the film is about aliens from outer space or war crimes in the Congo. Film is art, and art should not be afraid to explore such themes.
But guess what? Anger of the Dead only scratches the surface of those ideas and leaves the viewer intellectually dissatisfied. One would think that a film with a modest budget would be brave enough to tell such stories, not rehash the ones we already know. Audiences for these films are not (necessarily) mainstream, nor are they what one could consider a “mass” audience. Consider the translation from book to film and the inevitable arguments of what is left out from print to celluloid. For me, it’s not the "what" that concerns me, it is the "why."
For example, The Walking Dead comic is bold enough to tackle sexual violence. Consider the character Abraham Ford, whose wife and daughter were raped as his son was forced to watch. The brutality of this scene is to explore the behavior of a community afflicted with fear. Did this scene make it to film in the highly-renowned show with nearly 16 million viewers? Of course not. Such brutality, at least according to the show’s producers, is too much for a mainstream audience with Twitter and Facebook to soap box their opinions that could deem the show too offensive for some and jeopardize the show's ad revenue.
Yet, Anger of the Dead, with all due respect, would never reach such an audience. So what does it have to lose? It can go there. It can explore these ideas better than most mainstream films, but instead it leaves us with the familiar: Shoot the head. Run when there are no bullets left. Don’t trust the living. We are quite ready for that zombie apocalypse when what we need is a renaissance.
Images: IMDb & Hollywoodreporter.com