Tag Archives: Zombies

Reich of the Living Dead: Part Two

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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.

Naturally, there are more movies to cover in the future and (no doubt) more entries to spring forth in future but, to wrap up this festive miracle, I hereby lay forth the concluding, second part of this mini pop-culture quest.

Merry Christmas, one and all!

 

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Outpost [2008, Steve Barker]

Outpost DVD

My goodness, Outpost certainly makes you crave a bit of colour on your screen.

Predominantly painted in the dreary hues of bunker grey, mud brown and camouflage green, Outpost sets out to bring a little bit of grit to Nazi zombie genre; propelling a group of mercenaries – escorting a stoic and chiselled British spelunker – towards an abandoned East European bunker-like outpost in search of…something (to be determined). When the unsubtly-multinational team stumble across a whole host of paranormal hooley blowing around them, it soon appears that the site was once an SS military research facility attempting to bend space, time and immortality. Well, bugger.

This premise kicks off a rather military-flavoured action-horror crusade, pinning man vs. immortal in a way which manages to keep things deeply mystical and shrouded rather than explosive or, say, interesting. Whilst the cinematography, acting and dialogue is of a high quality, there is an undoubted vacuum of charismata in both pro- and antagonists: indeed, the biggest villain – the chilling Brigadeführer Götz – is woefully underutilised and painfully lifeless. But hey, maybe that’s the point.

Whilst, in the main, Outpost does manage to avoid treading on the same old Nazi zombie tropes, it falls over in its rather rigid adherence to the action-movie header without ever fully embracing the obvious paranormal parallels; culminating in a growingly tedious siege-style set-piece polished off with a hammy finale. Indeed, it goes to show that once you drain all of the colour out of an engaging concept and paint over it with camouflage gear, butch mercenaries and 9 mm rounds, what’s left is something just a bit dreary.

Something that not even Tyres (Michael Smiley) from Spaced can brighten up.

 

Frankenstein’s Army [2013, Richard Raaphorst]

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Frankenstein’s Army, on the other hand, is spectacular.

Emerging from the rubble of director Richard Raaphorst’s previous project, Worst Case Scenario, comes a full-blown 80-minute found-footage film which gives even Dead Snow a run for its money as my favourite film on this entire list. Taking the concept of Nazi occult experimentation to its natural conclusion, the premise sees a Soviet reconnaissance team going deep into the Eastern Front to discover an undead legion of previously-human robotic Nazi homunculi with a whole manner of afflictions: scythes for hands, iron maidens for heads and giant pincers for hands, it’s all here.Wow.

Naturally, this leads to a whole bunch of rip-roaring action as the Russian team lurch from one dangerous situation to the next; each time, ramping up the dread as the peril escalates. The film’s style and theme is a perfect fit for the “found-footage” genre, and the cinematography is superbly worked to bring out the best in the style: indeed, Frankenstein’s Army represents probably my favourite of the sub-genre; rivalling even [.REC] for vision and technique. The quality of acting and dialogue also matches the high-quality of visuals, and both creature- and set-design is absolutely top-notch.

There’s a super amount of ‘vision’ on display here, and a wonderful amount of joy in seeing a director left to build a fascinating and creative world without much in the way of creative restraint. Either way, and by a long shot, it’s the only movie I’ll watch this year that features a lumbering Nazi zombie with a rotating aeroplane propeller as a face. So that’s nice.

 

Zombie Lake [1981, Jean Rollin]

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And from the sublime, we go to the ridiculous.

A little like the cursed body of water which forms its main backdrop, Zombie Lake truly scrapes the bottom of the Nazi zombie barrel. Sure, you’ve got to expect that anything emerging from the soft-focus nightmare of European cinema in the late 70s/early 80s hardly going to have dated well, but it’s almost as if they were trying to make it ostensibly sleazy.

Zombie Lake (also: Le Lac des Morts Vivants; this one’s French, innit) circulates around a damned lake which harbours a legion of undead Wehrmacht with a penchant for kidnapping young girls who skinny-dip in the lake; in one case, even a whole female basketball team. Bizarrely, salvation lies in a 10-year old girl, a demonic ceremony, and a flamethrower; naturally. While it purports to be a horror film drawing on the Nazi zombie schtick, there are times when it’s hard to diagnose it from softcore pornography: it starts off immediately with full-frontal nudity and lapses into it with alarming regularity.

Out of all the movies that I have persevered through whilst on this quest so far, this has been by far the biggest struggle. The acting is contagiously hammy, the plot mind-bogglingly clunky, and there’s an unbelievable amount of lingering, padding shots that equally lurch from one scene to another as if the film-cutter was attacking the cutting-room floor with a handful of secateurs. It tries to straddle the diverse pillars arthouse and grindhouse, but manages to fall catastrophically into the chasm in between; make sure you bring your crampons, because it’ll be a slippery journey.

 

 Werewolves of the Third Reich [2017, Andrew Jones]

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Ok, so I’ve bent the rules a little. But hey, werewolves are pretty much just hairier zombies, right?

Werewolves of the Third Reich (WotTR) emerged out of the fog during a visit to a local brick ‘n’ mortar entertainment store, and I took a punt. The premise is this: Josef Mengele – the notorious ‘Angel of Death’ who conducted a series of human experiments at Auschwitz – has, by some nefarious means (comprising an overlong and extremely over-acted interrogation scene between a German scientist and a couple of highly-camp SS officers), acquired a serum allowing the fusion of genetic material to create monstrous beasts. Thus, at a generic Nazi scientific facility called “Camp 7”, the plan, naturally, is to construct an invulnerable Nazi-Chimera supervillain from wolf and man (supernaturally).

Yet, bizarrely, WotTR reaches to reach almost two-thirds of its run-time before anything materialises: in which time we’ve stampeded through three chapters of padded-out exposition, an Adolf Hitler with Parkinson’s Disease and the least convincing swastika flag that I’ve ever seen on screen. When the aforementioned werewolves werewolf does turn up (to imply ‘plural’ would be gross misrepresentation), there’s literally no momentum behind the film; a vacuum of plot, punchlines and peril. It’s low-budget, but fails to live up to even the lowest expectations and provides little in the way of hook to draw the viewer in.

Still, there is some entertainment to be had from the top-quality German dialogue that appears that it was translated word-by-word using Google Translate; I guess one has to enjoy the kleine dinge, eh?

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So, that brings things (as well as 2018) to something of a close. Sure, I’ve managed to pack in two, bumper posts just as the curtain falls on the year, but I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of the genre; there’s still plenty of ground to cover.

With that in mind, you have my word that this journey will continue into 2019; until then, Happy New Year!

[Zinar7]

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Reich of the Living Dead: Part One

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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?

 

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Dead Snow [2009, Tommy Wirkola]

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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]

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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]

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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]

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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?)

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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!

[Zinar7]

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Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites

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Since tomorrow is the 2014 edition of the Capitalism-fest that is Hallowe’en and the “scary things” closet has already been opened once again and a whole bunch of horror media sent barrelling our way, I thought I’d consider the role that video games play in our annual celebration of creepiness. Hurrah!

I’m a sucker for horror movies: creepy ones, silly ones, gory ones; you name it, I’ll devour it. Horror video games, on the other hand, can GET THE FUCKING HELL AWAY FROM ME.

Joel Cuddles

Largely, horror films completely fail to give me the creeps: perhaps it’s the knowledge that it’s all just a big scam, and the girl being chased by the guy with the big axe isn’t really being chased, and the guy with the big axe doesn’t really want to examine the girl’s internal organs in minute detail and with the complete opposite of surgical precision. Like everything in the movies, it’s just a big ol’ fake and there’s really nothing to be scared about at all.

At best, a surprise set-piece will give a brief shock, but never nightmares: the only things in recent memory to actually, properly, scare me were the Spanish original of [.REC] (which, incidentally, I will never ever watch again; not because it was too scary, but because the next time I see it will be a disappointment and I want to maintain it as one of my favourite horror films of all time) and pretty much all of The Descent (which was largely an hour and a half of Scary Things Jumping Out at You in the Dark™). Aside from that, I’m pretty unshakeable even in the face of maddening terror. When it comes to horror video games though, then you can rewrite all the rule books and Consequences Will Never Be the Same.

It’s here that I should probably define what I mean when I say “horror game”:

Horror Game [hawr-er geym]

n.  A video game whose predominant function is to scare, or thrill, above and beyond a regular ‘action’ game.

“I played this horror game last night and it was so scary that I accidentally vomited out my internal organs.”

It’s not a necessary prerequisitive for horror-games to be action-based, but most fall under the well-trodden banner of ‘survival horror’: your Resident Evils, your Silent Hills and your Alone in the Darks. These (almost universally) place you in the scope of some city-wide outbreak of nasties keen to chew on your face; away from which you must navigate your way (from fixed camera angles) in a third-person manner whilst simultaneously trying to find your wife/daughter/dog and understand what the hell’s gone wrong with the world. Even so, there are plenty of other horror-filled titles that meander away from the standard ‘shoot at and run away from the monster things chasing you’ to encompass psychological horrors, as well as the physical ones. I can categorically say that I will never, ever ever ever play Amnesia: The Dark Descent: I may own it on Steam, thanks in some manner to some Humble Indie Bundle somewhere along the line, but I’ll never install it.

Broadly, I watch horror films to be amused (usually by their shocking production values, hilariously bad dialogue and entertaining special effects), not to sit on the edge of my seat. but I can at least appreciate that some find horror films “scary” in some way. Horror video games, on the other hand, require direct input and often an emotional attachment (likely with the main character or perhaps for a “damsel” in “distress” that provides the key focal point for the story slash action) which amplifies the terror through your desire to see them survive the ordeal.

With a horror film, you know everything’s on rails and that the horror will progress without your direct involvement; you’re just along for the ride until the credits roll. If you do get scared, the action will progress regardless and you’re safe in the knowledge that, in 1-2 hours’ time, it’ll be over; no matter how much (or little) you engage with the scares. Where horror movies largely stick to the same sort of tropes (meaning you can largely predict how and when the scares are going to take place, who’s going to die, when something’s going to jump out, yada yada), proper horror games don’t have the same heritage and traditions and are tend to be far more innovative and inventive with how they give you the creeps. Aside from the more direct input that the player has on the action in a horror game than horror movie, this might also arise because of the relative infancy in which horror games inhabit, at least when compared to the 100-odd-year history of cinema.

Around this time last year, Naughty Dog unleashed one of the defining games of the PS3 generation in the form of The Last of Us; a survival-horror (ish) adventure game combining tension, emotion and zombie-ish things into a snowball of praise and Game of the Year (GotY) nominations from gaming critics. A year on (and with its recent re-release on PS4 in the form of a ‘remastered’ edition), many critics still view it as the high point of the previous console generation, drawing comparison with some of the ‘greats’ of cinema and banding around nicknames like “the Citizen Kane of games”. Still, given that the first, proper, piece of horror cinema is almost a century old now (widely accepted to be the creepy, unsettling The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), it’s unsurprising that video game developers have caught on to the main tricks of making a survival-horror game scare both physically and psychologically, becoming genuinely innovative with its horror engagement and leaving much of cinema’s generic horror output writhing in the dust.

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Given the immense (and almost universal) acclaim in which it is still held, I kind of feel I should play The Last of Us, but it just doesn’t grab me enough to give it a go (pun very much intended). I don’t go overboard for survival horror, and never have been: I think one reason why I dislike survival horror is that it takes itself so darned seriously (that Silent Hill dog ending aside), whereas all my favourite horror films (The Evil Dead, Saw, The Happiness of the KatakurisZombieland) are those ones that blow things over the top and deploy entertainment and/or comedy to complement the terror. The slow, tense styles of most survival horror titles hold no sway: the prospect of having to tensely save ammo/health and be frightened to death around every corner is often not the greatest motivator.

Instead, I prefer to be far more ‘gung-ho’ in my gaming style: it’s much more enjoyable to be charging around levels at full-tilt, full unloading clips of ammo in every available direction and trying to have as much fun (and cause as much chaos) as possible; preferably to a soundtrack delivered by Andrew W.K. or Turbonegro or something equally mental. This does, however,tend to make me a bit rubbish at stealth-based games like Thief and Hitman, let alone standard survival-horror games where you’re encouraged to save every last bullet and avoid alerting the entire zombie horde by careering around throwing grenades at the scenery. For shoot ’em ups of every colour and creed, I far prefer those that distribute copious amounts of ammunition and supply copious hordes of ghoulies/baddies to use it on; such as the glorious Bulletstorm or the masterpiece of Halo. “Saving some ammo for later” just isn’t in my dictionary, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

When I do stray into the darkened realms of horror gaming, I tend to to fall back on my love for zombies and zombie movies as a crucial pivot and gossamer connection to the world I know and love. And, even then, I like my zombie games to be entertaining struggles rather than bleak journeys of mere survival based on scavenging for crumbs of survival; the likes of Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead providing far more amusement than any number of repetitive, po-faced Resident Evils. I’ve recently been playing through Organ Trail (Director’s Cut) once again; clocking ever more hours into its cheesy, tongue-in-cheek conversion of the classic Oregon Trail into a homage-filled zombie survival adventure and enjoying every minute of it. And even then, if Plants vs. Zombies still isn’t the best zombie game ever made, then I’m a giant heron.

Okay, so enough about full-on ‘horror’ games; what about scary monsters and nice sprites in mainstream gaming at large? There’s an increasing trope for so-called ‘regular’ (non-scary, or mainly non-horror-based) games to artificially use ‘scary’ sequences to add to the drama or tension of a regular ‘action’ game, particularly in first-person person shooters, to varying degrees of success. Half-Life 2‘s superlative Ravenholm sequence is still one of the scariest (and most memorable) sequence in a modern first-person shooter, whilst the Sander Cohen section from BioShock – with all of its weeping angel-style mannequin-splicers and haunted theatre props – is one of gaming’s most expertly-executed creep-fests. Whilst Treyarch’s Call of Duty titles – with their schlocky zombies and undead Nazi footsoldiers – just feel like a tired resurrection of the same old trope of taking a standard game and trying to shoehorn some shocks into it, Red Dead Dedemption‘s glorious DLC/story expansion ‘Undead Nightmare‘ managed to implement a superlative zombie mode with infinite more care and grace.

Aside from traditional survival-horror games, there’s still a whole bunch of originality to be found within the ‘horror’ genre; resisting the mainstream horror genre’s tropes of endless wandering through endless dark, tight, grey corridors shooting zombies and collecting herbs. The likes of Project Zero (multi-platform, 2001-), Eternal Darkness (GameCube, 2002) and Cursed Mountain (Wii, 2009) come critically acclaimed by those in the know, demonstrating that there’s innovation to be found if players wander off the beaten survival-horror path, and the indie community also seems to be leading the charge in horror gaming of late; with particular successes such as the aforementioned Amnesia series, Penumbra: Black Plague and, this Hallowe’en’s breakout hit, Five Nights at Freddy’s. The equally-fascinating and terrifying Slender: The Eight Pages (which I have played; although not for long) demonstrate that terror can be inflicted without a bullet ever being fired.

So, despite the fact that I’m active only in the fringes of horror gaming, I’d wager that the genre is in fair health; so long as you steer clear of the kind of trash that The Evil Within appears to be peddling. With the growing success of Oculus Rift and true-VR gaming, I can only imagine that the successes of immersive, truly scary video games will also go interstellar. Schlocky, jumpscare games might not be my exact cup of tea, but I’m fully in favour of the injection of psychological, unsettling horrors into video gaming as a whole and engaging stories that place less emphasis on shooting space marines and more on tapping into the brain’s psychological fears. Game designers, take note plz.

Anyway, since this post has mainly been about scary things and personal gripes, I thought I’d leave you with a wonderful scene of beauty and harmony and everything that is ‘right’ with the world; don’t have nightmares.

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[Zinar7]

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