October 24, 2011

War of the Dead (Review) - Toronto After Dark

War of the Dead (2011)

*World Premiere*
(former title: Stone's War)

Director: Marko Mäkilaakso

2.5 / 5 zedheads

Can a movie go wrong with Nazi zombies?

Contrary to what you might think, yes. It can go very wrong indeed. You need only look to films like Oasis of the Zombies (1981) or Zombie Lake (1981) for historical precedent that Nazi zombies can’t save a bad movie. However, Nazi Zombies have been enjoying a new Reich of their own with the popularity of cult favourites like Dead Snow. Into this curious genre fascination with the Nazi undead comes WAR OF THE DEAD, which had its World Premiere during the Toronto After Dark Film Festival On October 22nd. While War of the Dead is nowhere as bad as Oasis or Zombie Lake, it’s still a complete dud.

War of the Dead is a muddled and cliché-ridden action/horror war film set during WWII. A team of American and Finnish soldiers are sent on a secret mission to destroy a bunker behind enemy lines in Russia. The bunker, although in Russia, is a Nazi German facility where ungodly experiments into reanimation are taking place. The film begins well enough with an impressive sequence depicting one of these experiments where a poor, tortured soul is forcibly converted into the living dead. The film starts to go downhill when we’re presented with one of the longest, non-scrolling text prologues I've ever seen. From this on-screen text, we learn that the Nazi project has been shut down and the bodies ordered destroyed and buried. At least, I think that’s what happens. From this point on, the plot becomes increasingly confusing.

When der fuehrer says we is de zombie race
We heil, heil right in der fueher's face
The infection that was perfected in the bunker escapes the subterranean facility when a dog bites into the hand of one of the buried infected bodies. This same dog takes a chunk out of one of the allied soldiers at the beginning of the film, transmitting the infection and turning him into a 28 Days Later-style zombie who spreads the infection to the enemy. When the Russian (or are they German?) soldiers reanimate, they wipe out their former comrades and then turn on our protagonist's platoon. After the carnage, we're left with a handful of survivors including Martin Stone (Andrew Tiernan), the American soldier; two Finnish soldiers, Lieutenant Laakso (Mikko Leppilampi) and Captain Niem (Jouko Ahola); and a Russian soldier named Kolya (Samuel Vauramo) who our heroes rely on to navigate them out of unfamiliar enemy territory overrun by tree-climbing, acrobatic undead monsters.
Psssst. What's my line?
The story should be simple enough to follow, but there’s a terrible lack of visual storytelling in War of the Dead and a series of anti-climactic, throw-away scenes gumming up the works. For example, the dog that transmits the infection is owned by an old man living in a cabin. The old man, we see, is buildings curious pentagon-shaped clockwork mechanisms. A lot of attention is put on these mechanisms and, later, a pendant shaped like these mechanisms that our heroes find being worn by Dasha (Magdalena Górska), Koyla's girlfriend. This young woman also has photos of the old man, who we have to assume is her father although I don't recall this ever being stated. Then, once our heroes penetrate the bunker, they find a photo of the same old man in a Nazi uniform. What does it all mean? What is the mystery of these clockwork devices? What is the relevance of the pendant? Aside from these questions, we've also learned that the zombies bleed a strange black substance that, in one scene, moves of its own inky volition, like the Venom symbiont from the Spider-Man comics. [Sidenote: Stan Lee is thanked in the credits of War of the Dead. Coincidence?]. What is animating these creatures? Only head shots will put them down, but are they alive or dead?

What's in the box? What's in the box?
As it turns out, the answers to these questions are either anti-climactic or beget more questions. The important clockwork mechanism is simply a key that opens a wooden box containing…….something. It’s too dark to see, but the heroes speculate that the black stuff in the box is what the Nazis used to create the zombies. You'd think that whatever it is would be important, but it's promptly forgotten for the rest of the film as soldiers run around a subterranean labyrinth shooting at fast-moving undead who are as aerobatic and limber as spider-monkeys. Wait, weren’t the zombies supposed to have been killed and buried by the Germans? Why are there still live Germans in the bunker and so many undead creatures running free? What was the point of burying the bodies top-side if they could be safely contained in the bunker? To make things more complicated, the zombies act inconsistently. An infected survivor from our heroes' platoon follows our heroes from a cabin in the woods, through the forest, and into the bunker for a showdown in which this zombie never once acts at all like the others. While the other creatures are quick and feral, this comrade-turned-zombie is slow and fights with deliberate hand-to-hand skills and focused determination. He does not bite but rather beats the shit out of the lone American soldier. Why? And why is there even an American soldier fighting with the Finns in Russia in a German bunker?

It's darker in here than an episode of CSI
Do the discontinuities and lingering questions of that last paragraph frustrate you? That's how I felt as I tried to follow the thread of War of the Dead. My frustration doesn't begin and end with the story either; it extends to the film's cinematography. The action sequences in War of the Dead are dark, murky, and so blurry I had to remove my glasses at several points and rub my eyes as I pondered whether the cinematography was truly that unfocused or if I was having some kind of stroke. It's almost impossible to tell who is fighting who. It's headache-inducing. Whether topside or in the bunker, everything is coloured in an tedious shade of grey or cast in murky shadows. This atmosphere does nothing to contribute to the tension; it only manages to rob the action sequences of their impact and visual entertainment. For an action/horror film, the action is painfully hard to see and the scares aren't scary.

To top it all off, the characters are dull stereotypes. Except for the Kolya (Samuel Vauramo), the Russian prisoner-turned-ally, or heroes are flat military archetypes trying to out-machismo each other. Stone, in particular, is the loose canon with a death-wish and a stale one-liner for every occasion. For a film with an English and Finnish cast that's shot in Lithuania, War of the Dead is as homogeneous as any other quickly-slapped-together Hollywood action film.

Except War of the Dead was not quickly slapped together. It took years for the filmmakers to shoot and finish War of the Dead as a result of cast turnovers and inconsistent funds from producers. By the director's own admission, War of the Dead was hell to make. It was shot in 2007, but it wasn't shown to an audience until the Oct 22nd world premiere at Toronto After Dark. I wish I could say that director Marko Mäkilaakso's hard work paid off, but that would be disingenuous. War of the Dead is stale, cliché, and hard to follow -- both visually and narratively.

But hey, it has Nazi Zombies, right? That's got to count for something.