Ane Dahl Torp, Army of Darkness, auteur theory, Ørjan Gamst, Bjørn Sundquist, cabins, Charlotte Frogner, Christian Wibe, co-writers, Colonel Herzog, dark comedies, Dead Alive, Dead Snow, Dod Sno, Einsatz, Evy Kasseth Røsten, favorite films, Film auteurs, foreign films, friends, gore films, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, horror franchises, horror movies, horror-comedies, isolation, Jenny Skavlan, Jeppe Beck Laursen, Lasse Valdal, Matthew Weston, Nazi zombies, Nazis, Nightmare City, Norwegian films, Peter Jackson, ski vacation, Stig Frode Henriksen, stolen gold, Tommy Wirkola, Vegar Hoel, writer-director, zombies
There may not be many guarantees in this world but here’s one that you can take straight to the bank: Nazis will always make great cinematic villains. After all, what other group is so synonymous with complete and total evil, so unburdened with any easy notions of humanity or morality? For filmmakers, Nazis are real-world vampires and boogeymen, historical realities where the “black hats” are so intrinsically part of the package that there’s never a need to sugarcoat or offer any sort of counterpoint: after all, what person, in their right mind, is actually going to stick up for these ghouls? Who’s going to raise their hand and protest the traditionally black-and-white presentation of these blood-thirsty bastards? If you think about it, Nazis are just about the best, purest personification of evil we’ve got: pure, undiluted hatred, with no possibility for empathy or sympathy.
While filmmakers learned long ago that Nazis make sure-fire villains, horror filmmakers have managed to one-up this notion of “ultimate evil” by taking it to its logical conclusion: ravenous Nazi zombies. What’s worse than a Nazi, after all, than a flesh-eating Nazi that can’t be killed? From cult classics like Shock Waves (1977) and Zombie Lake (1980) to more recent films like the Outpost series (2008-2013) and Blood Creek (2009), genre filmmakers have been mining this vein for some time, albeit with decidedly mixed results. For the most part, however, these films all have one thing in common: they portray their undead Nazi menaces as terrifying, dead-serious threats.
This tendency towards a more serious tone is completely obliterated by Norwegian writer-director Tommy Wirkola’s massively entertaining Dead Snow (2009), an honest-to-god horror-comedy that manages to make the threat of undead Nazis both suitably terrifying and impossibly funny. Similar to the early splatter-comedies of Peter Jackson, Wirkola’s outrageous tale about a ski vacation gone very, very wrong is a high-energy romp filled with gory effects, incredibly rude humor and some of the most kickass action setpieces in the game. When the film falls short, it’s a slightly silly, rather predictable variation on traditional zombie films. When Wirkola and company lock into a groove, however (which is most of the time), Dead Snow is absolutely relentless, ridiculously fun and one of the very best horror films of the ’00s.
Dead Snow kicks off with that hoariest of old tropes, the group of friends heading to the country for some rest and relaxation. In this case, the location is the snow-covered Norwegian countryside and the friends are the usual mixed group of character types: we have couple Martin (Vegar Hoel) and Hanna (Charlotte Frogner); wise-cracking horror movie buff Erlend (Jeppe Beck Laursen); Hanna’s cousin, Chris (Jenny Skavlan); outdoorsy Vegard (Lasse Valdal), who’s dating Sara (Ane Dahl Torp), whose family owns the cabin that they’re headed to; Roy (co-writer Stig Frode Henriksen) and Liv (Evy Kasseth Røsten). For the most part, they’re all likable characters, although most are sketched as lightly as one would expect for this type of genre offering: Martin is a doctor-in-training who faints at the sight of blood, Chris is the “hot girl” who falls for the resident nerd, Erlend always has a relevant bit of horror movie trivia for any particular situation, etc…Again, nothing we haven’t seen before, although it’s a refreshing change of pace to have a horror ensemble that’s this likable: only the hardest of hearts would root against this batch of cheerful goofballs.
Since the film’s very first scene depicts Sara fleeing through the woods, pursued by shadowy, malevolent figures in vintage Nazi regalia (to the tune of “Hall of the Mountain King,” which is just about as epic as it sounds), we’re already hip to some strange happenings in these here parts, but we get our official confirmation when a mysterious stranger (Bjørn Sundquist) shows up at the cabin to pour Pernod all of the partying youths’ ice cream. Turns out that the area they’re in has a bit of a bad history: a particularly ruthless Nazi battalion, led by the stone-cold Colonel Herzog (Ørjan Gamst), terrorized the locals there during the waning days of World War II. After the locals turned the tables and massacred the Nazis, Herzog and a group of his men escaped into the snowy mountains, never to be seen again. According to the stranger, the group, known as the Einsatz, still lurks up there, somewhere, waiting for unwitting victims to wreck their ageless vengeance on.
We wouldn’t have a movie if our plucky heroes took good advise, however, so they kick the stranger out and keep partying. When Vegard takes off to look for his tardy girlfriend, however, we get that other reliable horror convention: the splitting of the group. As the various friends go about their business, monstrous figures lurk in the shadows until everything comes to an explosive head (literally) and the group finds themselves under frenzied assault from a mob of zombified Nazis, led by the rotted but impossibly serene undead commandant. When the zombie mayhem kicks in, it never quits, rocketing our group (and us) full-throttle towards their inevitable rendezvous with ultimate evil. Our plucky heroes will need to fight back with everything they have, however: Herzog and his minions are on a mission straight from Hell and woe to anyone who gets in their way.
From beginning to end, Wirkola’s Dead Snow is an absolute blast of pure, undiluted fun. I’ve already mentioned the resemblance to Jackson’s early films, although Dead Snow is anything but a Dead Alive (1992) rip-off, even though both films share similar DNA. If anything, the film often plays like a far more splattery version of Raimi’s goofy Army of Darkness (1992): Army of Darkness even features a Deadite general who bears more than a passing resemblance to Dead Snow’s Herzog. There’s a good-natured tone to the carnage and chaos that completely belies the often show-stopping violence: you wouldn’t think that a scene involving a character rappelling down a mountain-side, using intestines for rope, would be silly and giddy but, in Wirkola’s hands, it most certainly is. Nothing in the film is watered down and no one is safe, lending a bracing sense of unpredictability to the proceedings: any character has the potential to be eviscerated at any moment and the film has a blast playing with these expectations.
Similar to Lenzi’s zombies in Nightmare City (1980), Wirkola’s zombies are fast, ferocious and more prone to stabbing you to death than trying to take a chomp out of your ankle. While I’ve never been the biggest fan of “fast zombies” (or smart zombies, for that matter), the ones in Dead Snow work brilliantly. In many ways, the film is extremely action-oriented, even for a zombie siege film: similar to how Dario Argento filled his films with “murder setpieces,” Wirkola’s is filled with white-knuckle fights against the resurrected Nazis. While there are a few instances of more measured, atmospheric horror (such as the excellent scene where Chris is stalked in the outhouse), most of the film involves the zombies chasing down and butchering their prey right out in the open, as the poor humans put up whatever resistance they can muster.
And muster resistance, they do: if you don’t find yourself jumping from your seat on a regular basis, fist raised to the sky, as Martin and the others kick zombie ass…well, I feel kinda sorry for you. Whether it’s the awesome bit where Vegard attaches a machine gun to his snow-mobile or the truly epic battle between Martin, Roy and about a million dead Nazis, Dead Snow is one great set-piece after another. When the film really gets going, it rarely stops, inching on the brakes only to highlight some of the film’s more overtly humorous aspects.
The humor, of course, is the other thing: while many horror-comedies completely botch the chills-to-giggles ratio, Wirkola and co-writer Henriksen prove as apt with the funny stuff as the runny stuff. While much of the humor revolves around gross-out gags and decidedly immature, politically incorrect observations about the world at large, there’s an underlying element of razor-sharp, insightful, pitch-black satire that serves as a sturdy foundation. One of my favorite scenes here (or in any movie, to be honest), involves the classic bit where Martin must deal with getting bit: after successfully going through all the usual motions, via a quick-cut montage, he stands victorious, only to immediately get bit by another zombie. It’s a brilliant gag that works on many levels (Dead Snow has lots of fun playing with standard zombie flick clichés) but is completely sold by Hoel’s all-in performance as Martin: his frustrated howl makes me spit-take every time I watch the film.
While the film is extremely well-made (the cinematography is quite attractive and the excellent score, courtesy of Christian Wibe, really heightens the action), it’s the incredibly game, likable cast that really puts this over the top. To a tee, none of the characters are unduly obnoxious (although Martin has a few quirks, like almost suffocating his girlfriend while messing around, that are admittedly worrisome) and we come to genuinely care for all of them. We spend the most time with Martin, our defacto protagonist, but they’re all a hoot, really. I’m particularly fond of Valdal’s “Spicoli by way of the great outdoors” take on Vegard: he cuts a helluva heroic swath through the evil Einsatz and never even looks like he breaks a sweat, which is a pretty sweet trick.
Ultimately, Dead Snow is just about as good as it gets for this kind of film. Genuinely funny, gory enough to impressive the hounds, full of likable, memorable characters and possessed of some seriously badass villains, everything about Wirkola’s sophomore film (his debut was a Norwegian “re-imagining” of Kill Bill (2003), believe it or not) is top-notch entertainment. While some critics bemoaned Wirkola’s followup, the tongue-in-cheek Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013), I found that film to be equally delightful, establishing the writer-director as a budding auteur along the lines of Peter Jackson or Frank Hennenlotter. Wirkola would go on to turn Dead Snow into a franchise with the equally excellent, English-language Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead (2014), proving that he’s no flash-in-the-pan. Suffice to say, no one rides the solid line between horror and comedy quite like Wirkola does: as long as he’s driving, I’ll be more than happy to ride shotgun.