action-horror, auteur theory, Ørjan Gamst, Best of 2014, Charlotte Frogner, children in peril, Christian Wibe, cinema, co-writers, dark comedies, Dead Snow, Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead, Derek Mears, Dod Sno, English-language debut, Evil Dead, extreme violence, favorite films, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, flashbacks, foreign films, gore films, Hallvard Holmen, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, horror franchises, horror-comedies, Ingrid Haas, Jocelyn DeBoer, Kristoffer Joner, Martin Starr, Matthew Weston, Movies, multiple writers, Nazi zombies, Nazis, Norwegian films, Peter Jackson, Russians vs Nazis, sequels, special-effects extravaganza, Stig Frode Henriksen, Tommy Wirkola, Vegar Hoel, voice-over narration, writer-director, zombie hunters, zombies with weapons
At one point in Tommy Wirkola’s Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead (2014), intrepid American zombie hunter Daniel (Martin Starr) turns to our put-upon hero, Martin (Vegar Hoel), and tells him, “I’ve seen thousands of zombie movies and this is not in any of them. You’ve created a whole new genre here, man!” Wirkola might not have invented a whole new genre with Dead Snow 2, per se, but he certainly seems to have perfected the one he’s working in: in every way, shape and form, Wirkola’s long-awaited sequel to his outstanding Dead Snow (2009) is top-shelf entertainment, 100 minutes of pure, unadulterated zombie-killing bliss. Bigger, better, funnier and more explosive than the original, Dead Snow 2 is that very rarest of sequels: it takes the original film, turns it up to 15 (sorry, Tap: this amp is way louder) and gives fans every single thing they wanted, along with lots of things we didn’t know we needed. I hate to draw a line in the sand but here goes: Dead Snow 2 is the single greatest Nazi zombie flick in the long, storied history of moving pictures. Wirkola has done it again.
In a stroke of pure genius, Dead Snow 2 picks up from the very shot that ended the first film, providing one of the very best examples of continuity possible (even more impressive when one considers the five-year gap between the films): all of the principal crew return, along with the previous film’s Vegar Hoel, allowing both films to dovetail as neatly as possible. After escaping from the villainous Herzog (Ørjan Gamst) in a white-knuckle car chase that culminates by introducing the undead commandant to the front grill of a speeding semi (right after he loses his saluting arm), Martin crashes and wakes in the hospital.
Afforded a little breathing space, Martin notices two things right off the bat: he’s handcuffed to the bed and he appears to have a new right arm. A nearby police officer cheerfully lets Martin know that they suspect him of massacring all of his friends from the first film, while a doctor cheerfully tells him that they found his severed arm in the vehicle and decided to reattach it. That’s right, folks: Martin’s new right arm is Col. Herzog’s old one! Faster than you can say “Evil Dead 2,” Martin’s possessed arm is killing the living shit out of everyone around him, forcing him to go on the lam.
As Martin tries desperately to control Herzog’s murderous limb, the undead Nazis rampage across the countryside, slaughtering dozens of unsuspecting civilians at every turn, only to resurrect them as additional zombie soldiers. Herzog’s army grows ever larger and it seems that all might be lost until Martin gets an unexpected call from the Zombie Squad, an American team of professional zombie hunters (according to Daniel): they’re heading across the world to help bail him out and squash the undead Nazi threat once and for all. As we see, however, this group of “professionals” actually consists of Daniel and his two friends, Monica ( Jocelyn DeBoer) and Blake (Ingrid Haas): they operate out of Daniel’s basement, have arguments about the merits of Star Wars vs Star Trek and have, to the best of our knowledge, never actually set eyes on a member of the living dead.
We don’t get to pick our heroes, however, and it soon becomes apparent that Martin, the Zombie Squad and new recruit, Glenn (co-writer Stig Frode Henriksen), are all that stands between the unsuspecting citizens of Norway and an honest-to-god Nazi invasion. When the chips are down, however, Martin will be forced to rely on a rather unorthodox solution: he’s going to have to use Herzog’s arm to resurrect the slain members of a rival Russian POW group. With undead Russians on one side and undead Nazis on the other, however, Martin and his team will quickly learn that leaping from the frying pan to the fire is a mighty fine way to get burned. Will they be able to stop the zombies in time or is the entire world on the cusp of a terrible, bleak new dawn?
As someone who absolutely adored the first Dead Snow, I’ll admit that I was more than a little nervous when I first sat down to watch the sequel: after all, this could only be a disappointment, no matter how small, and actually ran the risk of affecting my positive feelings towards the first film. Turns out I should have had a little more faith in ol’ Tommy: not only is Dead Snow 2 not a disappointment, it’s actually one of the very best films of 2014, horror or otherwise.
The key to the film’s success comes from amplifying those elements that really worked in the first film (the over-the-top action setpieces, the sly humor) and downplaying or eliminating the elements that weren’t quite as successful (namely the fact that Martin is kind of a drippy hero, for much of the film). While the first film had plenty of creepy, more traditionally horror-related scenes (such as the outhouse stalking), Dead Snow 2 is almost completely action-oriented. There are plenty of scenes devoted to zombie mayhem, don’t get me wrong, but nearly all of them are pitched as frenetic, over-the-top action moments, rather than more traditionally “scary” ones. Some of the best scenes in the film are the impossibly mean-spirited ones where the zombies rampage through veritable mobs of innocents, dispatching them in some truly inventive, eye-popping ways. Nothing’s sacred in the film (literally, as one of the plot points involves killing and resurrecting a priest), which anchors the film completely and totally in “early Peter Jackson” territory. From the gag where a tank rolls over a sandbox full of kids to the one where a zombified Nazi guts someone, uses the intestines to siphon gas out of a car and then gives a cheerful thumbs-up, Dead Snow 2 practically holds up a banner that says “Anything’s possible” and dares you to think otherwise.
In fact, this element of “anything goes” is one of the most intoxicating aspects of Wirkola’s film: there’s invention, originality and individuality to burn here, yet it always feels like the biggest surprises/delights are still over the horizon. By the time we get to the resurrected Russians, a ridiculously thrilling fight atop a moving tank and the simply fantastic finale (featuring, quite possibly, the best use of Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” that anyone could come up with, ever, period), the film feels like it’s going to keep piling on badassitude until our collective heads explode. This is the kind of film where the final credits roll and you realize that your chest hurts because you’ve been holding your breath without realizing it.
As with the first film, Wirkola and Henriksen’s script is rock-solid and almost impossibly funny: they’ve doubled-down on the number of gags in this go-round, gifting us with classic moments like the one where Herzog tries to Sieg Heil without his missing arm, the outrageous scene involving Martin and the kid in the hospital that manages to be horrifingly hilarious and some truly inspired bits involving a friendly zombie (Kristoffer Joner) that manage to one-up Bub in every way. The film is a lot funnier than the original, yet still manages to deliver plenty of hardcore/badass moments: the bleeding stained-glass windows as Herzog strides into the church deserve to be iconic and the scene where Daniel turns into a full-on zombie slaughterer is a real thing of beauty. As with the first film, Wirkola perfectly melds the horror and humor: this time around, everything just hits harder because it’s all so much better. Talk about a success story!
As with the first film, Dead Snow 2 looks and sounds absolutely killer: the effects are all top-notch and, with the exception of a few dodgy CGI blood shots, look as real as they need to. Acting-wise, the sequel is head-and-shoulders above the original (which was, itself, no slouch): besides the reset of Martin as a more traditional hero (ala Ash), we also get the always reliable Martin Starr as Daniel; another great, silent turn from Gamst as the vile Herzog (he really gets into the character this time around, giving us a handful of scenes that do the impossible and almost (just barely) begin to humanize the monster) and the brilliant addition of Hallvard Holmen as the impossibly obnoxious Gunga, a rural police chief who’s half-way between a Keystone Kop and James McAvoy’s repellent Bruce from Filth (2014). DeBoer and Haas are quite wonderful as Daniel’s perpetually feuding cohorts (DeBoer’s “May the force be with you” is a definite highlight) and Henriksen is equally great as Glenn: the scene where he, singlehandedly, stands up to the entire Nazi battalion is pure poetry and a real fist-raiser.
I’ve always enjoyed Wirkola’s films (I’ve seen the original Dead Snow quite a bit in the five years since its release and I seem to be one of the few people in the world who really enjoyed Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)) but there’s no denying that Dead Snow 2 marks a new evolution in his filmmaking. At this rate, Wirkola stands a very good chance of becoming the reigning clown-prince of horror-comedy: the level of polish and quality here is astounding. With one foot firmly in the outrageous gore comedies that influenced him (those looking for the red stuff need not fear: Dead Snow 2 is, quite possibly, one of the most splatterific films since Romero’s unassailable Dawn of the Dead (1978)) and the other in the kind of bright, big-budget multiplex fare that have always been anathema to “real” horror, we might be looking at the next, great “uniter,” similar to Edgar Wright. With a sequel to Hansel & Gretel in the works, I’m willing to wager that Wirkola plans to take his game to the next level. Bully for him: as a die-hard member of Team Tommy, I, for one, cannot wait.