Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Dead Snow

A couple of years ago, when I first heard about Norwegian zombie movie, Dead Snow, I was completely psyched. Not only were the viral teasers super awesome, but it was also a revamping of one of my favorite, and most ludicrous subgenres of horror, the Nazi Zombie film. The only way the idea could have been better was if it was Nazi zombies emerging out of bodies of water, like Shock Waves and Zombie Lake, but I’ll take what I can get.

After the initial buzz, the news quieted down for a spell, and I went on about my life, Norwegian Nazi zombie free. When the movie was ultimately release in 2009, it met with overwhelmingly tepid reviews. Is this another case where pre-release hype doomed an otherwise worthy movie that couldn’t possibly live up to all of the advanced hoopla, or is Dead Snow really just nothing special?

My answer is, probably a little bit of both.

Dead Snow starts like so many horror movies start, a group of friends, Norwegian med students, head to a remote cabin in the snowy mountains for the weekend, far away from everything, and where cell phones don’t work. Cue ominous music. They immediately get down to the business of having lighthearted fun in a winter wonderland, and when they finally settle in for the night the standard creepy local coot, out for a stroll in the middle of a deserted, snow covered forest, stops by, demands a cup of coffee, and fills these spoiled-brat city-kids in on the sinister past of the region. Turns out that during World War II the Nazis used this region as a submarine base. Seeing as Nazis are the bad guys, they treated the local populace quite brutally. When the Nazis looted all the valuables from the area, that was the last straw, and the inhabitants rose up and chased the Nazis into the mountains, where they theoretically froze to death, never to be seen again.

You can imagine a rough approximation of what happens next.

As a straight up zombie movie, Dead Snow works pretty well. It certainly doesn’t break any new ground, but within the teenagers-in-the-woods-facing-an-unspeakable-horror framework, it is solid and enjoyable.

The problems arise when writer/director Tommy Wirkola tries to make it something more. It tries really hard to be one of those tongue-in-cheek horror movies where the characters are hip and young and aware of all the archetypes and rules of the genre. Early on the characters reference the Evil Dead movies, and one of the friends even wears a Braindead t-shirt. It feels forced, unnecessary, and even a little insulting.

When the film sticks to horror it works, but then they try to be funny. This is where it starts to fail. There are funny moments that simply happen within the frame of the story, that happen organically, and those are fine, but there are more moments where jokes are inserted into the script. These fall flat and induce groans.

I know deconstructing the causal logic and storytelling of a zombie movie can be self-defeating, but throughout I kept coming back to one question. Why now? It has been more than fifty years since the end of the war, so why are the Nazi zombies emerging now? They are obviously driven by the need to repossess their plundered gold. (It feels like there is a curse on the treasure, some connection that draws them towards it, but that is never addressed.) And obviously, someone, somewhere, found the treasure before the med students, so why didn’t Nazi zombies reanimate and reclaim what was theirs earlier? There is an element of legend, of internal mythos, that seems to be missing from the story. This isn’t a huge distraction, but again, I keep coming back to the question, why now?

Dead Snow is worth a watch for fans of the genre. It has legitimately good moments, as well as faults. If the filmmakers simply made a straightforward zombie movie, without trying to be cute and clever, it would be much more successful, despite being a standard, paint-by-numbers horror flick.

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