Color, 2003, 96 mins. 24 secs. / 104 mins.
Directed by Michael Spierig & Peter Spierig
Starring Felicity Mason, Mungo McKay, Rob Jenkins
Umbrella Entertainment (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD, Australia R0 HD), Madman (Blu-ray & DVD) (Australia R0 HD/PAL), Lionsgate (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), CTV (DVD) (France R2 PAL), I-On New Media (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany R0 HD/PAL), Anchor Bay (DVD) (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Arriving just on the cusp of the zombie(ish) renaissance inaugurated by 2002's 28 Days Later and turned into a pop culture assembly line with The Walking Dead, the very low-budget Australian gore comedy Undead couldn't help but invite comparisons to Peter Jackson's New Zealand splatter epics at the time. The 16mm film by identical twin brothers Michael and Peter Spierig (billed as "The Spierig Brothers"), who went on to bigger things with Daybreakers, Winchester, Jigsaw, and Predestination, earned positive word of mouth on the festival circuit and a bit of a cult following, eventually earning a significant slot in the history of Aussie genre cinema.
When she inherits her family farm, only child and local beauty queen pageant winner Rene Chaplin (Mason) is also informed that she's been saddled with a mountain of debt. With the bank seizing control of the property, she decides to ditch the small town of Berkeley to go stay in the city with her grandmother, but before she can leave, the town is besieged by a freak meteor shower. Soon the population starts to turn into aggressive zombies, and the survivors including Rene, Wayne (Jenkins), and heavily-armed survivalist Marion (McKay) are navigating a minefield of threats inside the town which is now enclosed by a strange barrier and shrouded in inexplicable rainy weather. On top of that, people are getting randomly sucked up into the clouds, a mystery that could be tied to the outbreak.
The kind of film that really needs to be graded on a curve, Undead is filled with ambition given its meager self-financed nature and the fact that the highly uneven special effects were created on the directors' personal computers. The gore gags are pretty good as are the performances, and the story takes some intriguing turns with a mixture of wit and genre twisting that pays off in a satisfying final stretch. On the other hand, the color grading here didn't look great at the time (mostly a gray-blue tint with occasional sepia scenes) and really grates on the eyes after a while, and the heavy-handed synthesizer score quickly wears out its welcome, too. All told, it's an amiable calling card for everyone involved that makes for a diverting horror party movie with even wild flourishes to merit a look today.
Undead was picked up for U.S. distribution by Lionsgate back in the day, complete with a very stacked DVD featuring separate cast and crew commentaries, a making-of featurette, "The Zombies" internet featurette, a Toronto Film Festival screening video, camera and make-up tests, a homemade dolly construction featurette, a video animatic to film comparison, deleted and extended scenes, and artwork and design sketches. The same package was more or less present on the other DVD editions (give or take a trailer or two); interestingly, some discs featured a longer 99m54s version (in PAL, or 104m at film speed) versus the 96-minute one evidently prepared by the filmmakers for the U.S. Several dialogue scenes that were evidently deemed superfluous were edited out, including more early background info on Wayne and various exchanges scattered throughout.
In 2011, Australian label Madman issued the film on Blu-ray featuring both cuts and all of the preexisting DVD extras, followed by a German Blu-ray with essentially the same extras and just the initial Australian cut. In 2021, a second Australian Blu-ray was issued by Umbrella Entertainment featuring a bonus 17-track CD of the film soundtrack. The same package was given a 2023 release in the U.S. by Umbrella via OCN Distribution, which is identical down to the disc labels. That release features the revised international cut, replacing the two older commentaries with a new one featuring the Spierigs and cinematographer Andy Strahorn. It's a great track that still displays a lot of amazement how they jumped from this film (made for less than $1 million) to a major Hollywood production soon after while also talking about the shooting schedule, the creation of the sets and effects, the lengthy shooting schedule, and lots more. The film itself looks the best it ever has here, with the commentary explaining how it's essentially a generation above what's ever been released before. The DTS-HD MA English 5.1 track (with optional SDH English subtitles) is as dynamic as you'd expect with lots of strong multi-channel activity from the meteorite strike onward. The video extras shake things up as well including the production footage compilation "On the Set of Undead" (47m22s), the mostly dialogue-free short film Attack of the Undead (37m25s) by Peter Spierig, "The Making of Undead" (37m28s), a production photo gallery (11m37s), and the archival dolly video (2m9s) and camera and make-up tests (1m45s). The package also comes with a booklet featuring a new essay by BJ Colangelo.
Reviewed on January 15, 2023.