You can just imagine the 16 year old Spierig Brothers sitting in their bedroom late at night drinking red cordial trying to freak each other out.
‘ What about if there’s a zombie outbreak in rural Australia?’ Asks Peter.
‘And the guy fighting them will be real quiet like Clint Eastwood or Mad Max, and not only will he have a fierce babe fighting alongside him, but also a triple barrel shotgun,’ answers Michael.
‘Hmm, what’s missing?’ Ponders Peter. ‘Oh yeah that’s right aliens.’
Welcome to the 2001 Australian feature Undead. There’s no doubting it’s a teenage boys fantasy come to life. But its tongue is indented so firmly in its cheek, and it embraces its wackiness and low budget limitations so humourlessly that it’s impossible not to get swept up in its manic energy.
Recalling the ultra low budget precociousness of Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste (and Braindead now that I think of it), Undead is the first feature of the brothers who’s next move would be the $20 million Ethan Hawke vampire film Daybreakers. In the directors commentary they joke that the contact lens budget for Daybreakers at $120,000 was $45,000 more than the entire budget of Undead.
It’s gratuitous horror mixed with absurdity, like a 50’s scifi horror with an updated gore sensibility. After all if you remove someone’s entire upper torso so just their legs and spinal cord are walking around it’s pretty funny right? The answer you’re looking for is yes. So there’s lots of hokey effects that are jokes within themselves (particularly now), ridiculous action scenes and absurd confrontations, but the key to Undead and the reason why its just been so lovingly re released in Umbrella’s Beyond Genres series is that at one point it really kicks things up a notch, takes an abrupt left turn and becomes something else entirely.
Somehow against the odds it becomes weirdly poetic and elevates everything that came before it. It’s what makes Undead such a strange beautiful, stupid naïve beast. It’s kitchen sink filmmaking. No one knew if there was going to be another chance, so everyone from the actors to the sound designers to the directors and writers just threw everything they had at it. That’s why there are scenes with people punching out fish and incredible lines like ‘Are you a fighter fish queen or are you zombie food?’ There’s actually an incredible moment where the Australian flag floats lazily down behind our heroine after a particularly hectic zombie beheading in a grocery mart. You ought to be congratulated.
Whilst some of the acting is a little large, and there’s a few clichés bouncing around, its ridiculously entertaining and it does surprise. It also shows the brothers’ ability to do much with little, so it makes sense that they subsequently moved to the US and have since released another Ethan Hawke film Predestination in 2014 and even the 8th Saw film Jigsaw in 2017.
As expected there’s an abundance of extra features including the aforementioned commentary with the brothers and cinematographer Andy Straborn, where they reflect almost with envy on some of the dangerous, potentially life threatening activities that they indulged in to get this film made. You get the sense that this film shaped them and they continue to draw upon the experience. They also mention meeting people with Undead tattoos – which is pretty nuts. There’s some technical behind the scenes features and a pretty illuminating making of film, where they reveal they used up their entire budget in the first day of their 41 day shoot. Perhaps most interesting is an early black and white short, Attack of the Undead, which is definitely a precursor to Undead. It’s brutal, primitive, and with Santa wandering around blasting people with a shotgun its more than a little messed up.
Nothing is too much here. It’s an audacious debut, it’s dumb, funny and unrepentantly gory. What more could you want?