If you think Simon Rumley's The Living and the Dead is just another zombie flick, think again. The title may be more than a little deceptive, but the film has nothing to do with the armies of undead that often roam similarly titled horror films. Instead we get a grim and twisted human drama that spins completely out of control. The result is a dark and disturbing film that is certain to surprise those expecting a run of the mill genre flick.
Work hard, persevere and you'll earn yourself a break. That's what Simon Rumley must have thought. His first few films were ignored by just about everyone, but he kept going and in 2006 he hit it (relatively) big. The Living and the Dead got a decent enough international release and plenty of coverage from online genre communities. And deservedly so. Sadly Rumley slid back into obscurity after this film, but at least he got his name out there.
While watching The Living and the Dead some of Rumley's influences are instantly recognizable. There's a hefty dose of Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream in here, Shinya Tsukamoto's oeuvre is also right around the corner. But Rumley's film is no mere copy of his predecessors, instead it uses similar stylistic element to create a very bold atmosphere of its own. It cannot quite compete, but at least it provides a very interesting alternative.
Lord Donald Brockleban's estate is in decline, his wife is bed-ridden and his son James suffers from a mental illness. In order to raise some money he has to sell the estate, but he needs to travel to London to close the deal. With no nurse immediately available, Bruckleban has no other choice to leave the care of the house and his wife into the hands of James until the nurse arrives. Even though James is eager to prove himself, it doesn't take long before the pressure of caring for his sick mom gets the better of him.
Visually it's somewhat of a mixed bag. While the setting is pretty amazing, it doesn't feel like Rumley made the most of the withered estate. He captures the emptiness and ugliness of the place rather well, but he fails to find beauty in the his dreary surroundings. He does make up with superb editing and some marvellous fast forward sequences though. When James is manically racing through the castle, the film is at its best.
The soundtrack plays an important part in this too. While its not completely unseen for a director to speed up the visuals, this is one of the only times I've heard it being done to the soundtrack. Electronic tracks are sped up together with the visuals to create a creepy, unsettling atmosphere that builds up to a strong, manic climax. The music during the quieter parts is equally beautiful and effective, but somewhat less noticeable.
Whether you'll be able to stomach the film hinges on Leo Bill's performance. I probably couldn't stand being in a room with his character for more than 5 minutes, but Bill does a tremendous job portraying James. He's grating, annoying and often terrifying, yet also tragic and pitiful. It's one of the most effective portrayals of a mental patient I've ever seen on film, though I can't vouch for the realism of his character. The rest of the cast is good too, with a daring role for Kate Fahy as James' mother standing out, but they're clearly all secondary to Bill's performance.
Rumley steadily builds up to a climax around halfway through the film. It's a gutsy move because the aftermath takes up the remainder of the film and without a true finale the ending may be a little disappointing to people expecting a more traditional plot structure, then again The Living and the Dead isn't very traditional to begin with. The drama that is introduced in the second part is solid and makes for a fine ending, though it never reaches the heights of the middle part.
Leo Bill's outstanding performance, the feverish middle part with its manic editing and sped-up soundtrack, and the barren, grim atmosphere all add up to the unique and dark experience that lifts the film far above its budgetary limitations. The Living and the Dead is somewhat of an acquired taste, but people with a soft spot for Tsukamoto or Aronofsky's older work should probably give this a go. It's not all that hard to find, so there really isn't any excuse not to watch this one.