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outpost

Despite having seen so few good ones, I’ve always been a fan of Nazi zombie flicks. Chalk it up to seeing “classics” like Shock Waves (1977) and Oasis of the Zombies (1981) when I was I kid but I’ve always had a soft spot for shockers that feature the undead SS, especially when said films tend to take a more serious, dark approach. While Oasis, Shock Waves and Zombie Lake (1981) are all pretty silly entries in this particular subgenre, there have also been real gems like The Bunker (2001), Blood Creek (2009), the hilarious Dead Snow (2009) and The Keep (1983) (although The Keep is a bit of a cheat since it features Nazis and a demon but no Nazi zombies). Chief among these “good” Nazi zombie films, however, would have to be Steve Barker’s creepy, atmospheric feature-debut, Outpost (2007). Making good use of a strong ensemble cast and some genuinely eerie locations, Outpost is a rock-solid horror film that resembles Neil Marshall’s excellent Dog Soldiers (2002) yet manages to have an identity all its own.

Kicking off in present-day Eastern Europe, a fussy bureaucrat by the name of Hunt (Julian Wadham) hires a team of mercenaries to take him into a dangerous no-man’s land so that he can access a long-abandoned World War II-era bunker. Hunt tells the team that he’s after mineral deposits but merc leader DC (Rome’s Ray Stevenson) has his doubts, especially when his team appears to get fired on by unseen assailants. Returning fire with a zeal that should’ve laid a whole city flat, the mercenaries come to find that not only aren’t there any bodies in the nearby woods, there aren’t even any shell casings or signs that anything living was ever in the area.

Things get even eerier once the team descends into the bunker and realizes that nothing is quite as it seems. For one thing, the bunker appears to be an old Nazi fortification, as evidenced by the enormous swastika found in one of the chambers. There’s also an inexplicable room full of dead bodies, bodies which appear to belong to the poor, unfortunate locals in the area. Most importantly, however, the group also comes across a large, mysterious machine that appears to be part combustion engine, part science experiment. This, of course, is the reason that Hunt needed to come to the bunker: in the end, it always come around to some button-pusher’s hidden agenda, doesn’t it?

All hell breaks loose when Hunt powers on the machine and its seems to have the effect of raising the dead, unleashing an army of zombified Nazi soldiers upon the unfortunate mercs and their employer. Unlike the gut-munching zombies of Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead (1968), these Nazis are the weapon-utilizing variety found in Lenzi’s Nightmare City (1980): in no time, the soldiers are locked in a desperate life-or-death struggle against creatures that shrugged off the mortal coil some time in the past but just can’t seem to stay dead. One zombie in particular, a mute, stone-faced commandant, appears to take charge of the undead legion, leading his troops in blood-thristy pursuit against the living. As DC’s men are picked off, one by one, he must uncover the secret behind the machine and figure out Hunt’s real reason for being there: otherwise, he’s going to be just another body for the war machine to roll over.

Similar to Marshall’s Dog Soldiers, Outpost ends up being an excellent, fast-paced and atmospheric war-horror hybrid that features some fantastic effects work (the makeup, in particular, is great), evocative cinematography and eerie sound design. The bunker location is a truly awesome setting and utilized to great effect by Barker and director of photography Gavin Struthers, in only his second full-length film. The filmmakers wring endless mileage out of the mercs slipping from one dark tunnel to the next, often lit by nothing more than the gentle glow of a light stick: to be honest, it never really gets old, testament to the importance of a good location.

In another nod to Marshall’s debut, the ensemble cast in Outpost is particularly strong, ably anchored by Stevenson’s authoritative performance as DC (in an odd coincidence, Stevenson’s partner-in-Rome, Kevin McKidd, was also in Dog Soldiers). The whole cast is solid, however, featuring reliable character actors like Michael Smiley, Richard Brake and Enoch Frost: their interactions ring true, for the most part, and it’s pretty easy to believe that these guys are not only former soldiers but current comrades, despite their often bristly relationships. Actually caring about the characters is one of the prime requisites for separating “decent” horror films from “good” ones and Outpost has this handily locked down.

While the “zombies using weapons” aspect was initially a little off-putting (I prefer my zombies to be old-school, meaning they shuffle, stumble and chew with their mouths open), it actually fits in perfectly with the film’s “soldier” theme and leads to some truly disturbing scenes, such as the one where the Nazis hammer bullets into one of the mercs. These Nazi are soldiers, first, and zombies second, which is actually kind of refreshing. Despite being more military than monstrous, the Nazis still manage to cut quite the terrifying figures: the scene where they slowly emerge from the woods, surrounded by fog and backlit by a blinding white light, is instantly reminiscent of both Carpenter’s classic The Fog (1980) and Bava’s stylish Demons (1985) and is a real corker.

Ultimately, Outpost succeeds so well because it has modest ambitions and executes them with a sturdy, self-assured hand. While the “mysterious machine” aspect of the film tends to get a little overly complicated (I’m still not quite sure what the logistics of the Nazi plan was supposed to be, although it was obviously nefarious), there’s no shortage of genuine chills and shocks to be found, making sure that the film stays firmly planted in “horror” territory. The ending even leaves the door wide open for a sequel, a promise which Barker would make good on a few years later with Outpost: Black Sun (2012), followed by a further entry, Outpost: Rise of the Spetsnaz in 2013, albeit one not directed by Barker.

And there you have it: a great setting, strong cast, smart script and creative kill scenes combine to make one helluva horror movie. While the early days of the Nazi zombie film might have been overly silly, it looks like Barker is helping to give them a little legitimacy. Here’s to hoping that the Outpost franchise continues to deliver quality chills into the distant future: for this guy, at least, you can never have too many Nazi zombies wandering around.

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