Certain concepts give film fans a chance to get their genre geek groove on - as long as they are done properly. Title something ‘Ninja Strippers’ and you better be ready to show swordplay and skin. Call your latest epic ‘Cannibal Lesbian Vampires’ and the mind’s eye screenplay tends to write itself. It’s the same with subject matter. Offer up something as sublimely sinister (and silly) as ‘Nazi Zombies’ - or perhaps, zombified Nazis? - and you tweak the horror lover’s inner nerd. The very notion of history’s ultimate villains vanquished and then reanimated as the most unstoppable of undead fiends could fuel a thousand nasty nightmares. This is clearly what Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola was hoping for when he created Dead Snow. Borrowing liberally from the Western macabre machine, he creates a winning slice of surreal arterial spray.
Three couples - all medical students - are traveling up to a remote mountain cabin in order to celebrate Easter break. They include an ex-solider, a film fan, a party animal, and a wannabe doc who’s actually afraid of blood. The gals don’t mind their bumbling boyfriends, even when they act like idiots. What does concern them is Sara. She left before the group, wanting to ski her way to the campsite. When she fails to turn up, everyone grows concerned. Things get worse when a random traveler invites himself in and tells a horrific tale of murderous Nazis who used to torture and abuse the locals some 60 years before. While skeptical of his story, two things help change their mind. One - they find a box under the cabin’s floorboards filled with gold and jewelry that the Germans were supposedly hiding. And two - they begin to hear strange noises in the surrounding forest. Sure enough, jackbooted zombies make an appearance, undead members of the Fuhrer’s army led by a decomposing Colonel Herzog. Their aim is simple - kill everyone. And that’s exactly what they intend to do.
Told in three completely different acts and styles, Dead Snow is like a primer of how the last 30 years of Hollywood horror has redefined the international scary movie landscape. Part one plays on every slasher film ever conceived, giving us a group of “should know better” victims prepping for a party hardy weekend of drink and debauchery. Naturally, some menacing old fart shows up to criticize the coffee and warn them of the area’s haunted past. Once a couple of kids are killed, we run smack dab into Evil Dead territory. It’s hard not to see Part two’s plan since the entire remote cabin/within the woods dynamic is repeated over and over. By the time the threat becomes all too real, we have swung over into the domain of efforts like the Dawn of the Dead remake. Nothing says splatter like a thousand cannibal goose-steppers, a corpse-like Colonel, and a band of desperate young people armed with sledgehammers and chainsaws.
Indeed, the gore factor here keeps Dead Snow from being a complete snore. This is not to say that Wirkola couldn’t get a way with more subtle scares. The gorgeous and desolate Norwegian backdrop could fuel an infinite amount of isolated dread. But without the blood and guts, without the constant chaos of machinery mangling flesh, we’d wind up with a homage that’s only half-baked. It’s clear that filmmakers like George Romero, Sam Raimi, Tobe Hopper, and more recently, Zack Snyder, have influenced the world of terror, and within said status is both good and bad elements. Sadly. Wirkola works within a few of those flawed arenas, assuming we will care about characters barely explained, or sit back happily while the whole “how and why” of the Third Reich rippers is left unexplained. Indeed, the most unsatisfying part of Dead Snow is that lack of motive. A desire for Nazi gold is one thing (just ask Uwe Boll). Making it the reason that monsters go nutzoid is another oddball aspect completely.
Of course, there is always cultural subtext, and Dead Snow could be seen as a massive mea culpa for whatever part Scandinavia and Norway specifically played in Hitler’s rise to power. At first, the students want to share in the ill gotten gains of six decades before. But when cooler heads prevail, they are prepared to defend the history contained in the box of ancient treasure. By the time they are down to a couple of desperate members, however, it’s time to turn from aggressor to accomplice. It’s amazing how spineless someone with a power tool can be when confronted with five times as many targets to contemplate. Similarly, our so-called heroes are more than happy to sacrifice others in the name of their own survival. While not pertinent to an American viewer, such an illustration of Norwegian chutzpah (or lack thereof) must give Wirkola’s countrymen fits.
Which leads us back to the bile. There are kills in Dead Snow that will surely redefine what a gorehound will find offensive. One head wound in particular is so unreal it will literally shock any seasoned splatter-phile. There are also moments of true “intestinal” fortitude, though one assumes that guts make for lousy life saving devices in reality. Toward the end, when the remaining kids are carving away with wild abandon, we wonder how Wirkola will top himself. Oddly, it doesn’t come with a splash of vein gravy or a dozen decapitated heads. Instead, it’s with a potent reveal, a last gasp illustration of just what our humans are up against. It’s incredibly potent, and promises something that, sadly, Dead Snow is not quite ready to revel in. Indeed, beyond the sluice-laden special effects and the constant foot races, this film doesn’t delve into areas that deep.
Still, for someone whose knowledge of horror extends from the Universal classics up and through Hammer, the drive-in, ‘80s direct-to-video, and recent Asian and torture porn, Dead Snow will seem like a lilting love letter to everything that’s groovy and gross. Wirkola may still be borrowing too openly from the masters of the past (including eccentric nods to such non-fright faithful as Tarantino and Ritchie), but he has a way with composition and framing that offers glimpses into his own possible future. And as with many foreign versions of familiar frights, the cultural differences and debts are incredibly fun to watch. As a rule, one should always be wary of anyone promising infant werewolves, flesh-eating whores, or demonic break dancers. Sometimes, assurances don’t meet expectations. Luckily, Dead Snow manages to meet most of our horror hopes.