Marko Mäkilaakso’s “War of the Dead” pitches itself as an instinctively attractive-sounding genre meld that’s one-part classic guys-on-a-mission WW2 actioner and one-part storming Nazi zombie apocalypse, but unfortunately it just doesn't seem to get around to doing all that much that’s interesting with either of these element. Shot for peanuts (by Hollywood standards) in Lithuania, in a stop-start production which saw the movie take quite a number of years to complete, young, first time director-writer-producer Mäkilaakso has put together a visually attractive piece of work that disguises its tiny budget for the most part pretty well, but wastes any good will the intriguing scenario might have generated with some lazy threadbare plotting in which too many of its threads turn out to have been left helplessly dangling by the end. Although always conceived as a non-gory horror action-adventure hybrid, one can only assume that somewhere along the line during its checkered production history all narrative interest was gradually excised in the name of getting something – anything! – onto the screen, regardless of content; but what has been arrived at here feels more akin to a bombastic but unsatisfying shoot ‘em up video game-style storyline, with plenty of period setting but precious little clarity.
It’s always a bad sign when you have to rely on a lengthy written text intro to establish what’s actually going on before the film starts proper, but you certainly wouldn't be able to figure out much from the sepia-tinted prologue alone, in which menacing Nazi officers, silhouetted by noir-ish shafts of back projected bright light, observe German scientists performing some sort of experimental procedure on captured Russian soldiers in an underground bunker on the Russian/Finnish border, while opera plays on a crackly gramophone record for added decadent atmosphere while drowning out the agonised screams of the victims.
This was in 1939, and we’re told that these experiments in ‘Anti-Death’ were part of a secret Nazi project abandoned two years later after a direct order from Hitler himself. All records of past experiments were then destroyed and test subjects buried in an unmarked mass grave nearby. Now it’s 1941, and a crack unit of Finnish and American troops has been put together under the joint command of Finnish Captain Niemi (Jouko Ahola) and American Captain Stone (Andrew Tiernan), with orders to find and destroy the now-abandoned bunker. Unaware of precisely what they are marching into (although Niemi seems to know more than he ever lets on) the unit includes an American cameraman, brought along to record its findings as they happen. Unfortunately, almost the entire squad is quickly wiped out in a night-time attack by a bunch of resurrected undead Russian soldiers who were thought to have been killed in an earlier fire fight and whose numbers rapidly increase as their bites turn their victims into similarly ravenous creatures, hungry for the flesh of their former comrades.
Niemi, Stone and Lieutenant Laakso (Mikko Leppilampi) are among the small group of survivors of the massacre, and they meet up with a young Russian conscript called Kolya (Samuel Vauramo) who is the only survivor of an earlier attack on his own unit. He leads them to a derelict cabin, nestled in the mist-blanketed Finish woods, which the pursuing creatures inevitably lay siege to. After more of their number are bitten (including Captain Niemi) and the rickety cabin proves impossible to defend, the surviving trio make their escape in an old motor vehicle stored out back, picking up Kolya’s girlfriend Dasha (Magdalena Górska) en route through a ruined Russian village previously torched by exiting Nazis, and making their way to the underground bunker with intent to complete their now suicidal mission.
The rest of the film plays out in the dank concrete corridors and fetid tunnels of this bunker, as the survivors attempt to blast their way past lurking zombie menaces and a reanimated former Captain Niemi (who seems to have tracked them here after becoming a sort of crazed super-revenant … complete with Chinese Vampire, grasshopper-like leaping skills) to make a beeline for the bunker’s centrally placed communications room where they plan to radio for a bomber squad to come and decimate the place before the remaining army of undead killers it houses can be unleashed upon the surrounding area …
The production design and art direction seen here is well served throughout by the good-looking cinematography of Hannu-Pekka Vitikainen, who’s work manages to invest the creepy woodland sequences (complete with ancient Gothic looking graveyards and atmospheric mist), the ramshackle ‘Evil Dead’ cabin and the monolithic bunker itself, with suitably evocative mood that goes a long way towards creating and sustaining a nightmarish fantasy landscape for characters who ostensibly inhabit a WW2 milieu to suddenly find themselves thrust into. Unfortunately, though the film looks great, the director’s shooting style during zombie attacks and war scenes alike involves an excessively choppy editing style and outdated jiggly camerawork, accompanied by accentuated sound design and over-busy orchestral underscoring that intends to create the impression of intense on-screen activity but without ever giving the viewer anything definite to fix on. It’s hard to be engaged, let alone wowed, by anything here, since most of the time you can’t even make out what’s supposed to be happening. When you can discern the odd shadowy, mercury-fast-moving revenant through the gloom and murk, they’re mostly rather a non-descript and uninteresting bunch, suggesting the rote casting of faceless stunt men employed to be set alight on screen and carry out all the crazy back flips and associated acrobatic tricks these soldier zombies seem to get up to -- all of which largely happens while the hyperactive camera is swishing past the action so quickly that you never can quite catch most of it anyway.
The action too often swaps common sense for hyperactive on-screen busyness; for while the zombie attacking force is able to wipe out a whole unit of soldiers in seconds, the rather weedy-looking Russian conscript Kolya is later often shown ass-kicking several of the creatures at once while they come at him snarling from all directions; which seems to suggest that either these zombies aren’t actually up to all that much or that the crack unit wasn’t all that crack! Even worse, the characters are wafer-thin, leaving little for British-playing-American-actor Andrew Tiernan (a face familiar to contemporary British TV viewers) and his co-stars to bite on. Similarly, any backstory each might have had is so briefly alluded to that it ends up being hardly worth the bother. References to Captain Stone’s dead wife and Lieutenant Laakso’s atheism never come to anything, and a recurring, suggestive focus on the intricate rotating clockwork brass devices that are seen in various characters’ possession throughout (and which display a distinctive design that also crops up on Dasha’s necklace at one point) leaves the impression that a greater level of plot significance may have once been attached to this element in an earlier version of the script than it eventually turns out to have here. That’s the only explanation I can find for an early scene involving an old inventor who is shown to harbour a tableful of these devices in his woodland cabin, since it seems to play no further role in the narrative, and it’s never clear why exactly it’s there. Other key relationships, such as that between Kolya and Dasha, aren’t developed enough to create the level of poignancy needed to make one really care what happens to either of them. Indeed, the whole film seems to float past without really leaving too much of an impression on one’s consciousness one way or the other. An unfortunate attempt to do too much with cheap CGI that isn’t up to the task set for it during the climax, and a rather unsatisfying throwaway final scene, only puts the seal on a disappointing misfire that promised more than it was in the end able to deliver.
This UK disc presents a decent enough transfer in the film’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Extras consist of a 15 minute making of featurette in which the cast and producers tell us what a great talent the young writer-director is (there’s no mention of the film’s four year production period let alone the reasons for it, though) and one of the money men informs us that the film is primarily targeted to reach a young male audience who like action adventure flicks, but that they also hope to draw in a female viewership with the prospect of a bunch of ‘handsome men killing zombies’. A trailer is the only other extra.
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