Undead was the first feature film directed by TV commercial veterans and visual effects artists Michael & Peter Spierig, twins who go professionally by The Spierig Brothers. And when I say "the first feature", I am not at all communicating how much of a first feature it is: the kind of first feature in which nearly every single choice has been made to showcase to a well-heeled producer that they should be entrusted with making a second. It's a calling-card movie, a noble enough tradition, though it is ungainly and strenuous in performing this task, and while it definitely demonstrates their ability to assemble images, it fails in the most extraordinary way to demonstrate that they had the first damn idea about telling a story. But why listen to me? The Spierig Brothers did get that second feature, and others besides: 2009's Daybreakers, 2014's Predestination, 2017's Jigsaw, and 2018's Winchester, and heck, I even like the second one of those. It is maybe not a coincidence that it is the only one of the Spierigs' five features that isn't a horror picture.

As for Undead, well it's definitely a horror picture, and other things besides: an alien invasion picture, and a mystery and then tied off with a bow that makes it feel vaguely like it thought about being a post-apocalypse picture, or at least that it would ask its sequel to be a post-apocalypse picture. Though it's more open-ended in a "stark and therefore cool" way than an actual "sequel hook" way.

More importantly, Undead is also kind of shitty, unmistakably the worst of the Spierigs' films on virtually all counts ("virtually" on the grounds that its deficiencies as a story are of a different kind than Winchester's deficiencies as a story). This is in no small part because of all those things it's trying to do: in its zeal to be more than just a zombie film comme une autre, it loses sight of what makes a zombie film work in the first place. The hook is straightforward enough: a comet has lately appeared in the night skies, and when it sends a meteor shower down to the small fishing community of Berkeley, Australia, it results in virtually all of the locals transforming into brain-hungry revenants. The only people who seem to be spared are René Chaplin (Felicity Mason, former Catch of the Day Queen, now readying herself to leave to leave town after her family farm is taken by the bank; young married couple Wayne (Rob Jenkins) and Sallyanne (Lisa Cunningham), the latter of whom was René's Catch of the Day Queen rival, and is now heavy with child; a pair of cops, the panicky and foul-mouthed Harrison (Dirk Hunter) and his meek constable Molly (Emma Randall); and Marion (Mungo McKay), the taciturn fisherman and survivalist whose well-stocked cabin is where the other five end up after the first wave of zombie killings. You can probably make some educated guesses as to where the plot goes based on the fact that only René and Marion actually got descriptions.

And also, you sort of can't. Penning all these folks up together, Night of the Living Dead style, would of course be almost painfully straightforward and trite, so the Spierigs made the very correct choice to shake things up. The made some very incorrect choices about how that shaking should take place. So, after a few hours or less of zombie mayhem, strange  rain starts falling - it's accompanied by unreal purple-blue light, and it burns like acid but doesn't seem to cause any lasting damage. There are also, seemingly connected to this rain, robe-wearing figures that appear to glow from the inside; and these figures seem to be connected to the massive, black metal wall that has suddenly appeared around Berkeley, stretching up into the unreal-looking clouds from which the rain falls (an admittedly excellent example of low-budget DIY CGI effects - the Spierigs did all the visual effects on their own, out of their house - adding to the effect of the film, rather than distracting from it). All in all, it appears that aliens have come right along side the zombies to abduct people, though whether they have caused the zombie outbreak or are merely taking advantage of this time of confusion is left purposefully vague. Also vague: what this has to with Marion's own previous encounter with the aliens, and his apparent superpowers now.

This is starting to get us into "a lot" territory, and that's without mentioning that the last ten minutes effectively reinvent the film as something brand new (though it's arrived at fairly). Now where "a lot" becomes "too much" is a matter of taste; that I find this film comfortably shades into the latter is entirely my problem. I do think it's fair to object to the strategy the Spierigs chose for trying to deal with this, though: atop all the rest, Undead is also a comedy: even, I would say, a comedy at the expense of being a horror-comedy, with almost no scares played straight, and the gore scenes in particular have an unmistakable tone of giddy "gee whiz, wasn't that sick?" creativity. They are, to be sure, magnificently over-the-top gore effects, executed with real verve and grotesque imagination (the disembodied legs puttering about blindly, with a spinal column sticking a half-foot into the air, is an especially nice touch)

And that's just the thing, some of the jokes do land. The absurd, straight-faced slapstick of Marion punching back a school of zombified fish leaping out of the water is good for a snort of amused disbelief, though I was well and truly ready for the bit to end by the time it did; and while I quickly grew tired by Harrison's non-stop (adlibbed) swearing and the shrieking one-note panic with Hunter (the worst of a none-too-great cast) plays him, the combination of those things in his huffy line "When I was a kid, we fuckin' respected our parents, we didn't fuckin' eat 'em!" hit me right in the gut, both as a funny character beat and a fine piss-take of the zombie movie trick of showing little cannibal children for shock value. Many more of the jokes, however, do not land at all, especially since Undead doesn't do anything to develop its humor, instead relying on a steady stream of yelling and swearing, largely unmodulated across the film's running time. This grows extremely tiresome extremely fast.

Beyond its failures of writing and tonal control, Undead is basically just a cheap movie that puts all its chips on "good gore effects" and hopes for the best. Hardly an uncommon strategy, and as noted, the best did, in fact, come to the Spierigs. Still, the film isn't particularly interesting as an expression of style: its cinematography, by Andrew Strahorn, is perpetually underlit and made worse by the way that every major setting (the afternoon, the night, Marion's gloomy house, the flashbacks to his first encounter with the aliens - the last of these being the only one that feels properly exposed) is slathered in a single hue of color-coding, which makes it feel monotonous as well. The sound is abnormally inconsistent: so many of Marion's post-dubbed lines sound like they're floating outside of the soundtrack that I genuinely assumed it was a stylistic device to set him apart from the rest of the cast (McKay's campy hard-boiled line deliveries support this reading), and I don't even know if I'm wrong about that. Though if it is a device, it is inconsistently and arbitrarily employed.

All in all, a pretty shrill affair, bombastic in the absence of being anything better, and bizarrely complicated as a narrative given how little it yields (the twist being less of an "aha!' than a "hehe, none of this mattered" gesture"). Honestly, the only things interesting about Undead are entirely extrinsic to the experience of watching it: one is that it established the Spierigs, who for better or worse have gone on to have a successful, sustainable career. The other is that 2003 was the year that Australian cinema rediscovered the horror film in a big way after a good decade and a half in abeyance - the same softening of the genre experienced in the United States in the '90s, without a Scream to recharge it - and this was one of the first entirely homegrown productions in the genre in the 21st Century. And it was a bit of a hit, in its entirely disposable way, on multiple continents. Still, it does nothing to refresh the moribund zombie film other than to make it annoying.

Body Count: Always tough to figure out in a zombie film - do we count it when zombies are put down, especially when this happens by the handful? Do we count it twice if we see them die as a human and a zombie? - and the ending makes it harder still. A smarter man would include a range rather than a number, but I shall be foolhardy and arbitrary, and count up what I would call the "featured" deaths, either because of their role in the narrative or because the film lingers over the makeup, and in so doing come up with 9.