A happy-go-lucky splatterfest that deserves a little respect
An alleged connection between Nazis and the occult has a tenuous historical basis but a strong pop culture pedigree. The Indiana Jones films, the Hellboy universe and the Wolfenstein video games all assume the Nazis dabbled with dark supernatural forces and looked for arcane relics to further their evil designs.
This odd little rivulet in pop culture probably has a number of sources, ranging from Hitler’s very real fascination with the nordic mythos to the fact that, in movies, comics and videogames, its always acceptable to kill hordes and hordes and I mean just hordes of two groups: Nazis and Zombies. No questions asked. Perhaps only orcs have proven more expendable, and have a higher body count, in the world of the pop culture fantastic.
Director Tommy Wirkola plays on this scary Nazi theme with his cheerfully macabre Dead Snow. A group of young, mostly hot Norwegians are isolated in a cabin when a bit of greed, or really just curiosity, awakens an einsatzgruppen of undead zombies. The Nazi revenants proceed to dine on our heroes, exuding several kinds of dread from their black SS uniforms. A 2009 Sundance selection, the film has generally been dismissed out of hand by critics as one-dimensional and dependent on fairly pedestrian bloody effects.
Mostly they are right. This is a forgettable film with no clear narrative direction. Not only does it have no character development, it barely has characters. The six medical students who get away to the Norwegian alps for booze, sex and an uncomfortable game of Twister are indistinguishable from one another with the exception of the “movie nerd” whose function is to make connections to classic genre moments from Night of the Living Dead and Evil Dead.
But I come to praise Dead Snow and not to chop it up with a blood-drenched chainsaw and bury it. Not unlike Evil Dead (which it slavishingly worships at points) the emphasis here is not on explanation or exposition. Thank God, instead this is a film about chopping up zombies in hilarious and disturbing and hilariously disturbing ways. It only slows down the carnage to remind us “Oh shit, not only are these zombies these are NAZI zombies!”
Filmmakers use the zombie movie to mangle the human body in the most shocking and outrageous ways possible. They purposefully call into question the good taste of the audience while tweaking its anxieties about the safety and stability of the body.
Several critics of Dead Snow, not bothering to think about the kind of movie they are hating, have labeled this violence “unwatchable”. This precisely misses the point of the entire exercise.
Of course it’s so disturbing that it’s unwatchable. This increases the frisson of watching it. It provokes laughter because we know the filmmaker is having a joke on us, testing our limits and making us test it, too. Are we really going to laugh at the film’s central visual joke involving a large intestine? We do and then laugh at ourselves for laughing. So, back off critics, Wirkola had no intention of making Bicycle Thieves.
Along with some good undead fun, Dead Snow includes some special features that are a treat for anyone who cares about independent film. The second disc gives us a truly oddball “making of” featurette with Tommy Wirkola describing the film as a “feel good, Nazi zombie horror thing” and commenting that he got the cheapest actors available since that seemed to suit the quality of the film. He’s obviously not kidding, at least on some level, and the featurette as a whole gives the sense of a cast and crew having a good time making a not very good and a not very important movie.
This is not at all off-putting given that director commentaries and featurettes for some of the silliest, low budget gorefests around make it sound like we are talking about 400 Blows. Wirkola doesn’t think he’s Truffaut, hell he doesn’t even think he’s Sam Raimi, and I think this approach to the material worked to make the film much more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise.
The extras include a series of features that show all the exigencies of trying to make a movie and promote it without a big studio and instant distributors. These video diaries show us a bad day on the set, the winter weather grounding everything to a halt. We also see an interview with one of the film’s production assistant’s, a friend of Wirkola’s who describes himself as an unemployed archaeologist. We also watch some pretty endearing footage of director and cast braving the gargantuan flight from Norway to Los Angeles and then on to Utah to make the Sundance festival. Flight delays and the uncertainty of audience reception give us a funny and seemingly very real picture of what it means to be a guerilla filmmaker.
This is highly recommended for those with a special interest in Nazi Zombies or anyone up for a gruesome unpretentious campfest.