Friends of mine will know that I’ve long harboured a passion for a certain sub-genre of horror movie: the Nazi zombie movie.
Quite where this guilty pleasure arose from, I have no idea; I’m certainly no fascist or hold any love for the Nazi Party or their political views. Maybe it’s just that mashing “zombies” and “Nazis” together is like evil x evil (evil squared) and makes for a right treat for those insatiable gorehounds like me for whom regular zombies are just a little…tame.
Anyway, the last decade has seen a meteoric rise in the number of movies hoping to capitalise on the bandwagon, so it seemed like as good a time as any to give them all a run for their money and see how they hold up. Hence, over two parts, I will review the main players in the franchise and give you my low-down of what’s undead and what’s FUNdead.
Hey, it’s Christmas, right?
Dead Snow [2009, Tommy Wirkola]
This is it. The undisputed king.
Dead Snow sets the gold standard for all Nazi zombie movies everywhere and, arguably (alongside Outpost, which will be covered in Part II next week), ushered in the recent slew of movies that is the focus of this pop-culture study. It’s everything that all others aspire to be, and the benchmark against which all are rated.
But it’s with good reason, because it achieves a level of cinematic quality both equalled by the calibre of both script and special effects. What first appears to be just another generic “bunch of friends go to a cabin in the mountains and spooky shit starts happening” soon emerges into an innovative action-zomedy that’s propelled by a solid setup: during World War II, a group of Einsatzgruppen (SS) found themselves hounded into the Norwegian mountains by local resistance townsfolk, where they were expected to perish. However, perish they didn’t; instead, straddling both life and death deep beneath the snow until awoken from their apparent slumber by Martin and friends, who semi-accidentally disturb a horde of Nazi treasure located under the floorboards of their rented cabin. Cue awakening of Standartenführer Herzog and his death squad in an undead limbo state à la Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, until all of the Nazi gold can be returned to its restful state.
The action is also superbly-choreographed, and balances action, comedy and tension to perfection whilst the blissful-white snow presents the perfect backdrop for buckets of blood to be sprayed across the mountain. Rarely is it the case that a silly, low-budget B-movie hits all the right notes at all the right times but, in the case of Død Snø, the stars align majestically.
What a film.
Nazi Zombie Death Tales [2012, Eaves/Higgins/Ronald]
Where Dead Snow was blessed with an actual film crew and a suitable budget to boot, not all horror movies are quite so fortunate. Naturally, though, the Nazi zombie myth is one which attracts all comers to the B-movie bandwagon; hence, even low-budget independent film-makers seek to plunder its gory depths. In that spirit Nazi Zombie Death Tales (also known as Angry Nazi Zombies; also known as Battlefield Death Tales) presents three separate half-hour stories, glued together with a bit of sticky tape and a heck of a lot of goodwill:
Medal of Horror is the pick of the bunch, with some genuinely impressive cinematic vision clearly crunched into a miniscule budget and available cast. It also features the best writing and direction of the trio, along with both the most convincing storyline as well as the most entertaining (and featuring the lion’s share of the Nazi zombies indicated by the film’s title) in a light-hearted B-movie action brawler. If you’re a Nazi zombie nut, fill ‘yer boots here; ‘cause it only heads downhill.
Harriet’s War escalates to full-on ghost story; featuring a spunky paranormal investigator sleuthing some ponderous swastika-related brutalities in a sleepy country village in middle England. Despite a drop in cinematic vision compared to the first instalment, it rips along at a pace and with some well-written dialogue and creepy narrative; delivering a Nazi-demon tale that’s reasonably fulfilling and (almost) well-rounded despite some flaws.
After the first two acts, Devils of the Blitz is, alas, the weak child. For starters, it misses the Nazi zombie mark by eine landmeile; managing only a poorly-realised devil-monster that neither feels convincing nor a valid threat. The background story is disappointingly one-dimensional and the cast and script are, alas, decidedly amateur; yielding a final tale that both drags incessantly but also barely makes up the numbers. Furthermore, if it weren’t for its WWII blitz setting, there’s no way that it would sit alongside the other tales; as it is, it simply provides a disappointing dessert to an otherwise satisfying three-course Nazi zombie supper.
As a result, Nazi Zombie Death Tales remains something of a mixed bag. Certainly not the runt of the litter, but merely a footnote in the annals of the Nazizomnicon.
Devils of War [2013, Eli Dorsey]
On the whole, the current crop of Nazi zombie movies take place in the modern day, with the WW2 undead reanimated 60 years after their original demise. Devils of War, however, bucks the trend to adopt a period 1944 setting to play background to a tale of SS experimentation into the occult and transformation of German soldiers into berserking, red-eyed demons. But, while there’s a solid premise behind the B-movie schtick, the result is a little underwhelming.
A rogue SS unit (named the Hande der Mammons and led by a female officer who was clearly cast based on her rank on the “buxomness” scale rather than the one describing “acting talent”), are holed up in a bunker behind the lines, stealing young girls from the Polish countryside and reading Latin scripture in terrible accents. Four US soldiers meeting the ISO-standard A-Team Formula (the “Old” one, the “Black” one, the “Suave” one and the “Mad” one) are sent in to investigate and report back; in the process stumbling from one action montage to the next, glued together with the thinnest coating of narrative imaginable.
Said action sequences are somewhat slow and elongated but, for what it’s worth, are fairly high in tension and nicely-choreographed, framed & directed. However, what these ultimately manage to mask is the absolutely atrocious story and dialogue which comes to the fore during the breaks and is so utterly devoid of any actual drama, tension or humour that it’s an ongoing battle to remain alert. Devils of War’s biggest enemy, then is pacing. With a little more care applied to the lulls, the bangs could be even more spectacular; but, as it is, they’re simply brief flashes of excitement in an otherwise dreary campaign. Yawn.
War of the Dead [2011, Marko Mäkilaakso]
Following the shambled efforts of Devils of War in pasting a supernatural zombie-horror onto a WW2 action movie, War of the Dead shows you how you do it properly. Although the narrative premise is kept to a subtle minimum (there is one there; you just need to dig for it a bit), it doesn’t rely on the over-used trope of Nazi occult experimentation to propel the movie through; merely hinting at it whilst maintaining a strong focus on the well-delivered dialogue, action sequences and photography.
A company of Finnish soldiers, led by Captain Stone of the US Army, embark on a black ops mission toward a bunker behind Russian enemy lines, only to soon find themselves overrun by fast-running zombies and oppressive enemy forces. Following a swift escape by small, but dwindling group, the film focuses on their allegiance with a Russian enemy-cum-ally and their efforts to escape the terror which, alas, only bring them closer to the source of the hordes.
What takes over a tight 76 minutes is a relatively well-storied horror action thriller, with a bold and well-paced script matched by high-quality photography that certainly asymptotes toward the meteoric production values of much bigger-budget productions. What keeps it on the rails is a level of restraint to avoid overambitious; constraining the action and pace to manageable levels, and resisting the urge to to drift into cringeworthy, ill-advised comedy. War of the Dead does well to avoid the near-constant lean of WW2 movies to retain an unsubtle Nazi “baddie” as the prime antagonist; in the process, maintaining a focus on the monstrous without resorting to cartoonish Nazi tropes. It’s not quite up there to topple Dead Snow, but it makes a damned good stab at it.
(damned, get it?)
Anyway, with that, I shall leave things for now. But watch this space; for, next week, shall come to conclusion to this mini-adventure with Part Two of this Nazi zombie fun-quest.
See you next week!
[…] Last week, I kicked off a delightful yuletide journey to separate the undead from the FUNdead of the current crop of Nazi Zombie movies with the opening statement: Reich of the Living Dead: Part One. […]