During World War II, a squadron of American and Finnish soldiers encounter a Nazi strong hold in the Russian forest. Before long, they discover that the German scientists have been experimenting on the local population attempting to create the ultimate undying warrior to reinforce their front lines making them unbeatable. However, their experiments turned against them and now the surviving Allied soldiers must find a way to destroy the Nazi zombie plague that is consuming the countryside and threatens the world.
Cinema across the globe has long embraced the idea that Adolf Hitler was obsessed with the supernatural providing horror films ample opportunities to capitalize on the horror that Nazi uniforms and symbolism invoke. A surprisingly natural – or, perhaps, unnatural – combination is Nazis and zombies. In the past few years there have been a number of films to approach this mix from the delirious Dead Snow to the preposterous Iron Sky. Director Marko Makilaasko does so again with his debut feature film, War of the Dead. Injecting the undead into his 80’s style action-war film, Makilaasko has his Axis soldiers drop their guns in favor of their undead strength, speed and gnarly teeth. Unfortunately, like many modern vampire films where being a vampire isn’t as important as the number of vampires involved, there is not enough zombie in Makilaasko’s zombie film. Their numbers are many, but their appearance – at least from a supernatural angle, a horror film angle – isn’t as impressive. They become a faceless, weaponless horde. Questions about the movie actually being a zombie film aside, the direction is promising with a keen eye on the characters and cinematography. Makilaasko stays on top of his story and focus throughout, even when the script gets away from him. The film looks good. The acting ranges from excellent (Samuel Vauramo as the Russian soldier Kolya) to wooden but the action is strong. The characters and choreography have a heavy 80’s influence giving the impression this film would have been cast with Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jean-Claude Van Damme 25 years ago. War of the Dead has a problem living up to its most simplest contrivance, Nazi Zombies which comes across as a film that is afraid to embrace its own story.
War of the Dead introduces its main plot very quickly, setting up the remote Russian country-side setting during World War II. The film opens with a breakneck pace, quickly dropping its cast down to a surviving handful of characters. It’s a bit dizzy at first, struggling to find its footing. Soon War of the Dead must both build its main characters and solidify its main plot. It manages to do so without sacrificing its pace. The surviving cast consists of Martin Stone (Andrew Tiernan), Captain Niemi (Jouko Ahola), Lieutenant Laasko (Mikko Leppilampi) and a photographer (Andreas Wilson). With a Russian soldier reluctantly joining their ranks, Koyla (Samuel Vauramo), the film becomes human soldier versus undead soldier very quickly. With no clear representation of who or what is leading the zombie soldiers in their attacks, the film suffers from an identity crisis of sorts. is it a zombie film set during WWII or is it a War Film with zombies? It never really fully becomes either and it never establishes its own identity as an alternative. It constantly dances between each approach without reaching either side sufficiently or satisfactory. The dialog and plot doesn’t support it being a Dirty Dozen type film and the zombie makeup (or the zombies themselves) don’t allow it to become an interesting zombie film on that alone.
The acting is all over the place in War of the Dead, but still it is better than many low budget garbage that fills up a Netflix queue or attacks the television screen on SyFy’s supernatural Saturdays. Samuel Vauramo stands out as the Russian soldier bringing the film a strong emotional charge as he continually has to fight for not only his survival but his right to survive amongst his enemy comrades. His role becomes strong when the group discovers his girlfriend hiding amongst the ruins of the nearby village. Along the way, Vauramo proves himself the action star as well as he single-handedly fights off hordes of zombies usually armed with nothing but a shovel, a pipe or his fists in the film’s best scenes. Mikko Leppilampi is quite effective as the leading man in War of the Dead but never entirely commands the film. Still he provides his role, Lieutenant Laasko, with more than enough character, complexity and emotion to capture the audiences sympathy. The desire for his character to survive keeps the film from falling flat. Andrew Tiernan is the last of the trio of heroes driving the film and his is the weakest present more for his brawn than his appeal. For many scenes he is here to battle the zombie, and for one extended scene, one zombie in particular. Even at his weakest, however, Tiernan is still entertaining.
Jouko Ahola, the Worlds Strongest Man in 1999 and 1997, is a hoot as Captain Niemi. He is absolutely terrible in the beginning as the Captain barking orders without any conviction or authenticity. But, that is not why he is in War of the Dead. (Small Spoiler) He is here to become a Terminator-style zombie to continually chase down and threaten the remaining heroes. His zombified Captain Niemi is reminiscent of Schwarzenegger’s T-1000 mixed with a little Michael Meyers juiced up with some of Van Damme’s speed and fighting style. Other than some minor make-up and contact lenses, the fact that he is a zombie is all but lost; he’s simply a killing machine. Somehow it is a compelling and visually interesting performance once he is turned. While never as iconic or inspired as Schwarzenegger in Terminator, Ahola still brings a heightened level of threat to the film and plot. It works even if it so far removed from the entirety of the other zombies rampant in the film.
After Cabin in the Woods, every horror film can suddenly be stacked up against the stand horror film plot. While it is most commonly associated with the Friday the 13th type films, the thesis of Cabin in the Woods defines War of the Dead equally well replacing the five teenagers with the surviving soldiers trapping them in the remote forest and village. The zombies are the faceless threat that keeps them trapped, isolated from society forcing their hands to make unusual or questionable decisions. One by one, they fall victim to the horrors that lurk just outside whatever safe location they acquire, be it a cabin, a village or even an automobile. Even with its divergence from the common execution of this standard (soldiers instead of students, guns instead of blades, one of their own becoming a zombie), War of the Dead never really escapes the basic horror film structure.
War of the Dead is a war film and a zombie film but never a zombie war film. It struggles to mix the two genres together in a satisfying way. Still the film is filled with action, a trio of worthy leads and a satisfying 80’s action film vibe. It just needs more zombie in its zombie film. The film’s cinematography and choreography keep the film’s style impressive and its pace lively. Samuel Vauramo stands out impressively stealing the film from its intended stars Mikko Leppilampi and Andrew Tiernan. After films like Dead Snow, the bar for Nazi Zombies is raised quite high; War of the Dead never even attempts to approach that style of zombie or style of film, it moves in the opposite direction. This will most likely disappoint most viewers. That combined with the film’s trouble figuring out exactly what kind of film it wants to be results in an uneven experience. War of the Dead is far from a terrible film; in many ways, it is quite good and effective. The film just has trouble gelling in an overall satisfying whole.
2.5 out of 5
War of the Dead (2011)