One would think that after 45 years and literally hundreds of films involving flesh-eating zombies in our pop culture landscape, there would be more feature length films involving Nazi Zombies than there are. Oh there's a handful, maybe a couple dozen films in all, but fewer than ten of those (maybe no more than five or six, really) are worth your time. The best of them all, Shockwaves (1977), Dead Snow (2009), and the Outpost films, Outpost (2008) and Outpost: Black Sun (2012), find that delicate balance between horror, character development, excitement, and inventiveness that make up for any other shortcomings one might be able to spot in their productions.
The rest of the films that utilize the seemingly can't miss concept of the ultimate villains as the ultimate unstoppable killing machines tend to wallow around in poor overall concepts, bad acting, bad direction, and are mostly just unwatchable.
Because of budgetary restrictions it's even rarer for a zombie film involving Nazis to actually be set during WWII. That means sets, props, costumes, and at least a modicum of research – all things you want to trim from your budget and your shoot time if at all possible. So usually these stories end up being someone today stumbles across an old Nazi experiment and reanimates the monsters.
I mention all of this because Finnish Writer/Director Marko Mäkilaakso's 2011 film, War of the Dead is a rare attempt to make a serious horror film set during World War II and while it falls short at times, the effort and technical skills on display are commendable and the film is really worth a look.
Set in 1941, our story follows an American unit assigned to assist a Finnish task force as they cross over enemy lines into Russian occupied territory on a secret mission. That mission involves Nazi Zombies, of course. Or more accurately, Russian zombies for most of the film (there's remarkably few actual Nazis in the film, despite the marketing). It seems that the Nazis have been doing "Anti-Death" experiments on Russian prisoners, but after two years of work, Hitler has ordered the project shut down and all record of it destroyed.
Our heroes enter the scene just as the Nazis are piling dead Russians into mass graves.
This is a great concept that gets a little muddied by the fact that all we are really shown about the "Anti-Death" experiments is someone getting injected with a weird black liquid, convulsing, and then their eyes go mostly white. The screen cuts to black and we hear violent animal noises, but don't get to see what's going on. Mäkilaakso is holding that reveal for later, but in the meantime we are also introduced to a weird Finnish tinker living alone with his dog in the woods while making strange clockwork devices.
One of our Finns steals one and by the end of the day is beginning to act strangely. After he is killed in a Russian attack, it isn't long before he's back up and coming after his former allies as a zombie super soldier. The dynamics of the zombies is pretty straight-forward and traditional. If you're bitten and killed, you come back to life as a zombie. If you're bitten and not killed, the infection spreads through you until you die and come back to life as a zombie. Only these aren't your traditional zombies. These are super soldiers, leaping from trees and racing through the woods like maniacs. And while they seem to be animalistic, they work as a group and clearly have some higher functions, fighting rather than just wildly groping and trying to feed.
This is something War of the Dead has in common with all of the better recent Nazi zombie films. Why have just your regular mindless undead in Nazi outfits? There's not really anything special in that. But zombies with agendas and some semblance of consciousness or control is something interesting.
In the end, though, the film takes itself a little too seriously, and because of this its 86 minute runtime feels even longer. When there are pauses in the action, we are treated to melancholy conversations about dead wives, dead fathers, the horrors of war, etc. There is absolutely nothing fun about this film and that seems to be a conscious decision on the part of Mäkilaakso. Normally I would applaud that, and it is another daring move on the filmmaker's part, but when combined with the over-the-top action of snarling zombies leaping from the trees and through windows it becomes borderline absurd.
Especially when we are given no real insight into just how exactly the Nazis developed this technology. The black liquid is never identified as anything or explained. Although the main character, when referring to the stuff says, "The devil has many disguises." So does that mean this is some Nazi occult deal? I want to know. And what are the clockwork devices? They're keys of some sort, and one is used to open the secret vat of black goo, but clearly they can infect you directly somehow. Who the hell was that tinker in the woods?
With fantastic elements like these just tossed into the mix without exploration or explanation, the structural integrity of the narrative collapses. There's no real reason for these things to be happening other than we need to have zombie super soldiers, so black goo and clockwork keys should do the trick.
And this isn't a case like Night of the Living Dead or Walking Dead, where the origins of the zombie plague are left unanswered because the narrative focus is on the survivors rather than the actual threat. That's why those works get away with being vague.
If you're showing Nazis doing experiments, we need to have some detail about the experiments – I don't care if those details involve magic, science, or something else, but the story needs details upon which to build its world. I suppose a sequel will probably explore these concepts more (I'm pretty sure a sequel is on the way), but I needed more now to care about what was going on.
That’s really what keeps War of the Dead from really hitting its stride and joining the ranks of the films I mentioned at the start of this. Too much time spent focusing on the realities of war and not enough attention paid to the fantastical elements to make them work together. And while there is plenty of dramatic focus on the main characters' motivations, there's not a lot of actual depth to that focus. As a result, we don't really feel the desired emotional connection to the characters, forcing the director to manipulate the audience to get those results.
This is most obvious in a number of dramatic death scenes that are beautifully lit and shot while extremely emotional music swells, but it's all a bit much, and a bit empty, in the end.
Technically, however, this is a gorgeous piece of work. The cinematography by Hannu-Pekka Vitikainen, whose background is mostly in documentary
filmmaking, was sometimes just lovely enough to make me forget that at any moment there were going to be yowling stuntmen leaping into the shot. The actors' performances are all steady, if none really stand out. Irish actor Andrew Tiernan plays our badass American hero Captain Martin Stone (replacing the originally announced James Van Der Beek), and the rest of the cast is rounded out by Finns Mikko Leppilampi as Lt. Laakso, Samuel Vauramo as Russian survivor Kolya, and the 1997 and 1999 World's Strongest Man, Jouko Ahola as the diabolical Captain Niemi.
Actually, saying none of them really stand out isn't entirely true. Ahola, playing the Finnish leader who gets bitten and transforms into an undead super soldier, does his best work physically. He is an imposing and seriously intimidating screen presence once he goes undead and Mäkilaakso and Vitikainen know exactly how to shoot him to create some wonderful iconic shots. Combine that with a long (maybe too long) fight sequence at the end of the film as he goes toe-to-toe with Tiernan's Captain Badass and his probable survival of the climactic air strike and any sequel should at least have a credible and memorable main villain.
Overall, War of the Dead is a solid entry in an overcrowded genre that stands out by virtue of sheer production value. The script isn't as strong as it should be – the dialogue is weak throughout and there's a decided lack of depth in characterization and plot detail – but is functional enough to distance itself from the majority of low-budget zombie outings, and it features the introduction of what could become an iconic zombie villain. The film could have also benefited from a lighter touch here and there, but when all of your characters are ultra-serious it's hard to find a place for a wise-crack or sarcastic remark to break up the tension.
War of the Dead is released on Blu-ray and DVD January 1, 2013.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.