Zombies are all the rage these days. Why, it seemed like just yesterday that vampires were en vogue, what with the TWILIGHT film series in full hype. Werewolves? Meh. They've gone to the dogs. Today, the best scares are found in the ranks of the undead. Even AMC TV is getting into the craze with its stellar "The Walking Dead" program. I guess it was only a matter of time before some enterprising filmmakers figured out it was time to revisit the depths of history for some previously unexplored moments in our zombie past. You can bet the primary merchants of evil - the Nazis - experimented on re-animating flesh. After all, what possible malevolence didn't those dastardly villains exploit?
(NOTE: the following review will contain minor spoilers necessary for the discussion of plot and characters. If you're the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then feel free to either read elsewhere or skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. However, if you can accommodate a modest hint of things-to-come, then read on.)
The time is March, 1941, approximately half a year before the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor and draw America into the Second World War. Captain Martin Stone (played by Andrew Tiernan) heads a small squad of American soldiers alongside a contingent of Finnish men on a classified mission to destroy a secret Nazi bunker. But before you can say "about face," the platoon is shattered by gunfire. Before the night is over, Stone and the remaining survivors will have to join forces in battling the world's greatest threat: Nazi zombies!
The film opens with a written script that claims that Nazis experimented on the recently deceased in 1939. Furthermore, the text implies that members of the Finnish Army joined forces with the Americans to destroy the bunker involved in the research. Thankfully, that's all they claim as true because it's clear very early on that there's little else even remotely possible between the opening and closing credits. WAR OF THE DEAD is best left to what it is: pure, exploitative escapism. On that level, there's absolutely nothing wrong with it ...
Well, except maybe that not a lot of WAR makes any literal sense.
Written and directed by Marko Makilaakso, WAR basically meanders from one action piece to another - all of them set in the dead of night with very little light but more than a fair share of flash and bang - and, as a consequence, this is only a thrill ride. It's meant to be experienced, cheered, and (mostly) forgotten ... which is good because Makilaakso - while clearly an accomplished director - pretty much gets low marks as a writer.
The primary problem I had with the story (and, yeah, maybe I think about things too much) is that, see, they're `zombies' only they're not. Zombies - in their most primal state - are dead. Or is that the undead? I'm not even sure Makilaakso knows. They're essential mindless animals who are reduced to foraging for flesh or brains (depending upon their tastes). Their own mind only exists to pilot what remains of their body; I know this to be true because once they're separated from it, they're no longer a threat. However, Makilaakso's "dead" possess the basic attributes of zombies, but they also seem to have an almost superhuman strength whenever the director or the script requires it. Yes, they do go down from a bullet or a serious blow to the head, but that's all they bear in common. Otherwise, as the undead, they still pretty much function as soldiers, often seen climbing trees, clambering up buildings and over roofs, and fist-fighting.
To complicate matters further, they seem to also retain some form of human emotions, or so we're lead to believe. For example, the Finnish Captain Niemi - once he's been bitten and successfully smitten with zombiehood - maintains a personal quest for vengeance against his counterpart, Captain Stone. How or why does this happen? Well, we're never told. Apparently, director Makilaakso has no problem with screenwriter Makilaakso's script, and he never asked himself to hash it out logically.
There are other (many!) blemishes to the story that makes it to the screen, but I won't belabor the point. As I said, I think it very clear that WAR was intended to be little more than a scarefest, and, on that level, it's moderately successful. It's certainly front-loaded with some excellent camera work as the viewpoint is almost constantly in motion. While it's all impressive to look at, I would've preferred that someone else had taken a hatchet to the script and produced something that, marginally, added up to something more than what was delivered. In fact, several events simply happen - Stone and Niemi's major showdown, a kinda/sorta love interest, and an ending that sadly comes out of nowhere and really needed further explanation - and we're none the wiser for trying to figure this all out on our own.
I've read others (Ain't It Cool News and Fangoria, specifically) heap mountains of praise on the film, and they're perfectly within their rights to do so. It all looks grand. Too bad it all felt so empty.
WAR OF THE DEAD is produced by Accelerator Films, Lietuvos Kinostudija, Media One Entertainment, and Rialto International. DVD distribution is being handled by Entertainment One (eOne). As for the technical specs, most of it looks and sounds very impressive, though there was a brief sequence photographed in a makeshift ventilation duct that was fairly poorly lit - thankfully, it doesn't last long. How disappointed was I to learn that the disc came without a single special feature except for the theatrical trailer? BOOYAH on you, filmmakers! You could've given us something to look at besides all of the World War II glamor, couldn't you?
RECOMMENDED but don't be fooled: all that glitters is not gold, and WAR OF THE DEAD glitters plenty. Unfortunately, there's very little substance once the style is peeled away, and very little of the story makes any sense. Still, it's a respectable B movie that serves up probably enough scares and war-time action for a no-brainer - a Friday night diversion when there's nothing else on the tube - that could end up being a guilty pleasure to the right crowd. Have fun with it, but, for Pete's sake, don't think about it too much.
In the interests of fairness, I'm pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Entertainment One (eOne) provided me with a DVD screener of WAR OF THE DEAD by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.